Jermaine is a 12-year-old boy who had already gotten into trouble with the police for breaking into garages and stealing. His mother, concerned about her son, approached her Borchert Field neighbor Andre Lee Ellis a couple months ago to ask for his advice. Ellis offered to put the boy to work.
He paid Jermaine $20 to work in the community garden and clean up the neighborhood on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon.
“After the first week he brought five buddies with him,” Ellis said. “The following week 10, then 15, then 19, and last Saturday 40 kids came to work.”
To pay the young people, Ellis began a Facebook campaign. “We have adults stopping by on Saturdays to volunteer and donate money,” he said. “We always have the money to pay the kids. I love how God is using the situation to help the community. It’s working.”
Ellis, owner of a community-based theater company, said he was motivated by concern for neighborhood boys, who he said are surrounded by drugs and violence. He dubbed the effort “We Got This.”
“I’m telling the older guys, ‘Leave the boys alone,’” Ellis said. “Stop teaching the boys to sell weed and steal.”
Known in the community as “Old School,” Ellis insists that the young men be on time for work. If they are not at 9th and Ring streets by 8 a.m., they are not allowed to participate.
Ellis wrote in a recent Facebook post, “The young brothers they come with so much fire in their eyes. Each week I watch them relax more and more into their own lives. They get here early to work. They believe in what they are doing. They work with men that look like them.”
Ellis moved to the Borchert Field neighborhood in 2011. Within a week, he heard shots fired and came out to see a young man lying dead on the sidewalk.
Soon after, there was another shooting incident and Ellis rallied the neighbors to find solutions. “We have to invest in ourselves,” said Ellis. “We have to take back our ‘hood.”
Ellis realizes the problems faced by the young men are complex. They often don’t have positive role models. In addition, he said, “When you talk about solutions to crime and poverty, you have to discuss all the issues surrounding it like mental illness, incarceration and homelessness.” Ellis is well aware of studies that show that black men in Milwaukee face alarmingly high incarceration rates, and that black women with children are disproportionately evicted from their homes.
Nevertheless, he is heartened by what he’s seen in the eight weeks since Jermaine showed up at his doorstep.
“One of the kids took his $20, got a cooler from his mother went to the store and purchased bottled water and ice, sold them on the street and earned $60 that day,” Ellis said. “Another teen always wanted a snapping turtle, so he is saving his money to buy a turtle and all the materials needed to care for it.”
Jamal, 18, just graduated from Bradley Technology and Trade School and is headed to Western Illinois University in the fall. He found out about the “We Got This” campaign from a friend. “I wanted to help clean the neighborhood. The neighborhood portrays how we are as a black community.”
Jamal said he is using his money for college expenses.
This is not the first time Ellis has taken steps to better his community. In 2012, seeing an overgrown vacant lot on the corner of 9th and Ring streets, Ellis applied for a Community Improvement Project (CIP) grant and worked with Growing Power to transform the lot into a garden where community members can meet and grow their own food.
“Andre has a good heart,” said Latonya Lucas, marketing and promotions director at Saga Communications and a friend of Ellis. “He has always been someone who loves the community and goes over and beyond to help the community he lives in.”
“Don’t complain, help. Don’t criticize, help,” said Ellis. “Together we can bring peace to the neighborhood.”