8 Local Organizations Channeling Holiday Spirit into Worthy Causes

The good being done year-round in our city kicks into high gear this time of year.

Abar crawl to help feed the hungry. The head of the Jewish Community Center as Santa, and his wife as Mrs. Claus. A Secret Santa distributing nearly 1,000 gifts.

These stories and more are being played out in the Milwaukee area this holiday season. Nonprofit organizations here work year-round to improve the quality of life for our community’s most vulnerable residents. This time of the year, these organizations get especially inventive. 

Here’s a philanthropic feast of eight local nonprofits that are creating something special this season for their clients, members and friends. And you are invited to the table: Please share your own spirit of the holidays by donating or volunteering.

Love thy neighbor

Mark Shapiro dressed as Santa Claus
Tikkun ha-ir (Hebrew for “repairing the city”) of Milwaukee is active on a number of fronts: food justice, get out the vote, job training, clothing drives. It also stages a Gifts for the Homeless drive in which area synagogues collect presents at Hanukkah that are given out at a Christmas Eve party at Cathedral Center, a Downtown homeless shelter for women and families.

Tikkun Ha-Ir volunteers coordinate gifts for each shelter guest, plan a delicious Christmas Eve feast – a hot meal with sides, desserts, homemade baked goods and eggnog – and make sure Santa and Mrs. Claus (played by Jewish Community Center CEO Mark Shapiro and his wife, Sharon) make a surprise visit. “It’s a Jewish value: Do not stand idly by,” says Sami Stein Avner, executive director. “We could sit home and relax on Christmas, but this is a time we can take action to help people in crisis.”
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Ana Treptow, volunteer and development coordinator at the center, appreciates the effort: “We never fear our Christmas will be void of festivity and cheer, thanks to our friends at Tikkun Ha-Ir.”

She adds, “This special event brings a smile to everyone’s face, and special memories are made during a time of uncertainty and abnormality. Our guests enjoy a much-needed respite from day-to-day struggles and get to just enjoy the holiday.”

Age-appropriate gifts include stuffed animals, coloring books, crayons, candy and winter accessories such as hats and scarves, some knitted during the year by volunteers from the Jewish community. Tikkun Ha-Ir has nine sponsoring organizations from a variety of Jewish denominations.

“It’s very much ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’” says Avner. “These kids are in a rough situation, and to see their faces light up when Santa arrives is incredible.”

Grassroots philanthropist

Heidi Brittnacher; photo by Aliza Baran
One person can make a difference. Heidi Brittnacher has. The 28-year-old East Side resident volunteers regularly with several local nonprofits, including the Ronald McDonald House, Make-a-Wish and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“My sister, Mollie, passed away from cancer when I was a child, so our family was on the receiving end of their services,” says Brittnacher, a program coordinator in surgical education at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We owe so much to those organizations. Giving back as a young adult has been part of the grieving process for me.”

In addition to volunteering with formal organizations, Brittnacher has started her own, Mollie’s Angels. She and a half-dozen friends drive around the city handing out “Blessing Bags” – food, water, toiletries, handwarmers, gloves and the like – to “friends without homes” they find at intersections or underpasses. When possible, she’ll chat with them, too. “It’s a good way to humble yourself and learn to be open-minded,” she says. “People are just people.”

Friends of Mollie’s Angels assemble “Blessing Bags”



Last December she and a friend hosted a dinner for a large group that raised $1,000 for Milwaukee Rescue Mission, which works to end homelessness, poverty and hunger. This year they’ll host a wine-tasting event in early January called “Sip and See (How We Can Help Our City)”; all proceeds from the $20 suggested donation will again go to Milwaukee Rescue Mission.

And though Brittnacher is not getting married, she has created an Amazon wedding registry to collect for the “Blessing Bags.” Most items are under $25 and get sent to her door, to be put into the bags. Her “little sister” from Big Brothers Big Sisters has been helping with the effort.

“Working with Mollie’s Angels doesn’t require a big commitment of time,” she says. “Even as busy as we are, we can all make a difference, whether large or small.”

On the streets

In May 2017, Dawn Michalski and her family — two teenage children and her elderly mother, a stroke patient who was using a wheelchair — spent 11 dreadful days sleeping in parks. First evicted from an apartment, then thrown out by a friend, they were waiting until June 1 to move into a rental house. All the shelters were either full or would not take someone using a wheelchair.

“Even though it was May, it was cold,” says Michalski, 52, who receives SSI disability due to lung and heart problems. “We piled a million blankets on Mom. Then it rained.”

At times like these, Street Angels is a godsend. Three nights a week, the all-volunteer outreach organization delivers hot meals, clothing and supplies to people living outside – in tents, under bridges, on the street. Their van makes 22 to 25 stops, serving over 100 “friends” a night.

“These people have been burned,” says Eva Welch, president and co-founder, with Shelly Sarasin. “There are many reasons they’re homeless. They’ve been in foster care. Or they’re LGBT and have been kicked out of their families. Or social services failed them. It takes a lot to get them to trust us.”

Last month Street Angels delivered hot Thanksgiving dinners on its route, and it puts on a Christmas Party at the warehouse of Just One More Ministry in Wauwatosa, busing people to and from the party.

“When you’re out on the street for any length of time, it gets to you, emotionally, mentally, physically,” says Michalski. “The Christmas party is a fun break from all of that.”

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Michalski and her family are now settled in their home, which was furnished and stocked almost entirely through donations to Street Angels. The organization works to end homelessness by helping people find emergency housing, then secure permanent housing. It assists with small but crucial things, such as getting an ID card or a birth certificate, documents needed to take the next step.

“We are using the tool of a hot meal, toiletries and clothing as a device to connect, start a relationship, gain trust,” says volunteer Jenni Mastrogiovanni. “We show them we really care about them.”

Family by proxy

Thanksgivingfest & Potluck; photo courtesy of MKELGBT
The holidays can be stressful for many of us, what with packed social calendars, wallets hemorrhaging money and family tensions. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (LGBTQ+), the season can be downright traumatizing.

“The holidays can be a very lonely time for people of our community,” says Amy Orta, executive director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. “When some people come out, their families disown them.”

She adds, “There is this assumption that you have family, and there will be celebrations. Many of our young people are in foster care or homeless shelters. There is a disconnect.”

The Center’s Project Q (PQ) works throughout the year to help LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13 to 24, feel accepted and nurtured through social programming, discussion groups and wellness programs.

“All of our youth have experienced bullying, harassment, discrimination and often violence,” says Natalie Zanoni, director of client and program services. “PQ space and our center are an accepting, affirming, drug- and alcohol-free environment where they can identify and express themselves without fear of ridicule or harassment.”
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PQ goes into high gear during the holidays, combining with the center’s other programs, including those for seniors. They host a drag show at Halloween. At Thanksgivingfest, sponsoring organizations (including PrideFest Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Community Church and the Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee) contribute main dishes, sides and beverages, and everyone brings a dish to pass. Other holiday events have included drag shows and lip-sync battles.

This year, the center was planning to host an intergenerational Thanksgiving potluck – and possibly also a winter dance. “All of our social programming is led by the input of both youth and older adults in our program,” Zanoni says.

Drink for the hungry

Kohl’s employees volunteer for the Hunger Task Force;photo courtesy of Hunger Task Force
There’s nothing like a bar crawl to inject a little fun into Milwaukee’s fight against hunger.

For the first time, Hunger Task Force Inc. will be one of eight local nonprofits competing in the 12 Bars of Charity Pub Crawl this December. The bar hoppers will select a nonprofit to support when they purchase their $32 ticket, $10 of which is donated directly back to the chosen cause. “Drink for the hungry!” urges Sherrie Tussler, Hunger Task Force executive director.

At the event on Friday, Dec. 7, participating bars along Brady, Milwaukee and Water streets will offer special drink deals, and crawlers will be able to board a free shuttle among the venues.

The pub crawl is in addition to Hunger Task Force’s signature holiday food drive, Food for Families. Now through Dec. 31, food drive boxes can be found in grocery stores, schools and businesses. Since the campaign’s inception in 1988, more than 10.8 million pounds of food have been donated to feed hungry families.

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TO DONATE OR VOLUNTEER: hungertaskforce.org

TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PUB CRAWL: 12barsofcharity.com/milwaukee[/alert]

HTF’s ongoing work is to deliver food, free of charge, to 70 local food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, which serve upwards of 35,000 people every month. “We are doing our utmost to provide not just food but healthy food, to help reduce obesity, heart problems and hypertension,” Tussler says. She notes that HTF is the first food bank in the nation to adopt a model centered on the new USDA MyPlate nutrition guide.

One of the many meal programs supported by HTF is The Gathering, which receives meat and poultry, canned fruits and vegetables, and fresh produce in season. The Gathering provides 10 to 11 free meals each week, cooked on site at four locations, for the needy.

“It would be almost impossible for us to do what we do without the Hunger Task Force and other food donors,” says Virginia Schrag, The Gathering’s executive director. “It’s how we survive.”

Family fun

Azarie Blockton visits with Santa Claus in 2017; photo courtesy of Easterseals Southeast Wisconsin
In addition to providing a range of valuable services and support year-round to children with developmental delays or disabilities, Easterseals Southeast Wisconsin makes sure those kids and their parents have fun at holiday time.

The parties include a breakfast in West Allis for the children and families in Easterseals’ Birth to Three and autism programs and an evening event in Waukesha for their Safe Babies Healthy Families participants.

It’s a chance to share a meal and have fun taking family photos, decorating cookies, participating in crafts and games and, of course, visiting with Santa Claus. The large activity room in West Allis is filled with play equipment such as a parachute and ball pit.

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“The staff makes you feel very welcome, and you get to talk with other parents,” says Komesha Blockton, a military police dispatcher who attends the West Allis party. Her 3-year-old daughter, Azarie, born prematurely at 26 weeks, receives physical and occupational therapy at Easterseals. “The kids really enjoy getting to meet Santa and decorating the cookies. And, of course, they like getting the gifts.”

Corporate and individual partners – most recently the Harley-Davidson Retirees’ Group, financial tech company FIS and CVS drugstores – provide gifts and gift cards as well as serve food and enjoy playing with the families.

As part of the fun and games, Easterseals teachers and therapists are on hand to demonstrate developmentally appropriate activities to the parents. “They have been working with the children all along, so they can tailor activities to the child’s individual capabilities,” says Deborah O’Connor, early intervention services manager for Easterseals.

At the end of the event, attendees can pick up useful items such as toothbrushes, toilet paper, books and food. “We know the reality is that a lot of our families are in need of resources,” O’Connor said. “They walk out and feel a little better about their basic needs being met.”

An Army of Santas

At holiday time, Church Women United is like a Secret Santa – times 1,000.

Each year, the Milwaukee unit of this national ecumenical organization collects up to 1,000 gifts to be distributed to 10 different social service agencies, ranging from those that serve homeless veterans (VETS Place Central and Boudicca House) to those working with youth (Voice of the Fatherless Child) to community centers (Northcott Neighborhood House).

“We pursue agencies that have significant needs but don’t have a great deal of other support,” says Marilyn Stone, immediate past president.

One of them is Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, which monitors the safety and well-being of children identified as abused or neglected in their home settings. Church Women United “have been very resourceful in securing gifts for our teens,” says Lona Long-Velasco, community resource specialist. “Everyone wants to give to the little ones, but teens are hard to get gifts for.” In recent years, gifts have included name-brand clothing, basketballs, makeup and nail polish as well as gift certificates.
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DONATIONS CAN BE SENT TO Church Women United – Milwaukee Unit, 1527 Roxbury Way, Waukesha, WI 53186[/alert]

In spring, the chosen agencies attend a May Friendship Day tea, where agency representatives describe their work. In August, each agency completes about 40 request slips identifying the age, size and gender of a man, woman or child client. Those 400 or so slips are distributed among Church Women United members; hundreds of additional gifts are donated and divided up among the agencies.

On the first Wednesday in December, Church Women United members bring the unwrapped gifts – they’re wrapped later by the agencies – to a Christmas Tea at one of the members’ home churches.

“The agencies are so appreciative and enthusiastic,” says Suzanne Freshley, co-chair of this year’s event, whose home church is Albright United Methodist Church in Milwaukee. “Their clients don’t get very much during the year, so they feel special during the holidays.”

Other denominations in Church Women United include Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and African Methodist Episcopal. During the year, the group hosts speakers on social issues as well as conducting religious and meditation services. But Christmas is a special time for the group.

“People don’t know the gifts come from Church Women United. We’re not looking for recognition but providing opportunity,” Stone says. “Everyone should be able to get a gift at Christmastime.”

A little toy in jail

A folder containing an envelope with a stamp, a word search game, a pencil with an eraser, a Christmas card and envelope, several sheets of lined paper and a devotional booklet called “Our Daily Bread.”

And a Snickers bar.

If that’s all you found under your Christmas tree, you’d probably be disappointed. Inmates at the Milwaukee County Jail are grateful for them.

“As we’ve passed out these gifts, I’ve received big smiles, many thank-you’s,” says Janie Miller, a retired teacher from Mequon who volunteers at the jail. “I’ve seen grown men almost cry with joy. It’s such a bad time for them to be away from family; they are thankful that anyone would do this for them.”

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Contact Correctional Officer Mary Behrendt, 414-226-7020[/alert]All of the gifts are donated – typically by churches, this year by St. Benedict the Moor parish. The volunteers play instruments and sing Christmas carols while the gifts are being distributed.

Miller is one of 60 to 70 people who volunteer at the jail year-round, offering programs and services not otherwise available to the 800 men and 100 women inmates. These include Bible study groups, book club, meditation group, women’s wellness classes, anger management classes and a drug program.

Miller’s regular volunteer gig is as one of the “library ladies,” who gather and distribute donated books and magazines to inmates.

Some people think inmates shouldn’t get services or gifts, according to Miller. “I don’t agree with that,” Miller says. “Everybody makes mistakes. They’re not bad people. They’re people like you and me.”

Adds Terry Sherman, a regular volunteer at the jail: “Many inmates have had a lot of trauma in their lives. What’s inspiring is how they support one another, and that they hope to change their path. I like to say, ‘This is where the true Eucharist happens.’”

“Holiday Humanitarianism” appears in the December 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the October issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 3.

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