Metro Milwaukee Welcomes Amachi

In September 2002 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a 36-year-old man was beaten to death by a mob of children. Eleven children between the ages of 10 and 17 subsequently were charged. Ten of those children had a parent who was in jail or formerly incarcerated. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee hopes their Amachi program will help reduce the chances that this type of tragedy will happen again.

“I discovered that Amachi is the reason I came to Big Brothers Big Sisters,” said India McCanse, president and CEO of BBBS of Metro Milwaukee. “I know that Amachi is helping to save a generation of children.”

McCanse said that Wisconsin exports more prisoners than any other state, making it even more challenging for children to visit their parents in prison and heightening the negative effects of losing a parent to incarceration. Recognizing the great need for an Amachi program in Milwaukee and excited to ramp up to full speed in the first year, BBBS of Metro Milwaukee originally set an extremely ambitious goal of 400 matches in its first year. In hindsight McCanse says she would have set a more realistic goal of 150 matches for the first year. It was a challenge finding “a pool of kids to match with volunteers,” said McCanse. “We had to scramble. I would have spent more time initially hunting down the kids.”

BBBS of Metro Milwaukee relies on prison visits to locate children of incarcerated parents. Over the past year, McCanse has developed a close relationship with the warden of Taycheedah Prison. She has visited the institution a few times to speak with inmates about the Amachi program and regularly visits other prisons in the state as well.

Engaging Communities
McCanse attributes the program’s achievements thus far to the intensive summer months spent pre-planning in 2003 and the important partnerships developed with churches and the community. However, forging these relationships was not an easy task. Prior to Amachi, “we had no partnerships with faith-based organizations, specifically black churches in the inner city, many of which are very powerful in the community,” said McCanse.

BBBS of Metro Milwaukee had a history of making matches for lower- to middle-income white children from single-parent families. Five years ago the agency began to look for ways to increase diversity. Subsequently they went from matching 450 children in 1999 to 1,450 in 2003. Despite the improved diversity, McCanse was careful when approaching black churches. “We didn’t want to be seen as coming in trying to save the world,” said McCanse. “We couldn’t be an all white organization and walk in and say we want to partner with you. I knew we needed connections in the community.”

Wisconsin ranks highest in incarceration rates of African Americans—more than any other state, according to McCanse, and the majority of the children of Wisconsin’s incarcerated parents live in the Milwaukee area. Thus McCanse set out to hire staff who could approach churches in the predominantly African American communities where many children live. Currently, 8 of the 12 Amachi staff members are African American and are parishioners and leaders from the community—they serve as project director, recruitment coordinator, and enrollment and match specialists.

With these leaders on board, the agency was able to contact between 75 and 100 churches. However, McCanse soon realized that they should concentrate on their target areas and not spread too thin. BBBS of Metro Milwaukee originally asked for 10 volunteers from each church, but many of the churches seemed overwhelmed. The agency now asks for 10 volunteers, but requires only five. Another challenge the agency encountered was the joyful onslaught of volunteers on Sunday morning after the pastor encouraged the congregation—a number of times when the agency followed up with the eager church members the next day, they were no longer interested. By maintaining a positive relationship with the church pastors, the agency was able to return to each pastor and discuss the situation.

Thinking Outside The Box
BBBS of Metro Milwaukee learned that finding committed volunteers is only the beginning and that sometimes it takes creative planning to maintain a volunteer base. The agency recognized that 25 to 30 percent of their Amachi volunteers did not have valid drivers licenses and/or car insurance but were still valuable potential mentors who they did not want to turn away. Therefore the agency set up four sites (schools, an after-school center and the YMCA) in the targeted communities, allowing mentors and mentees to meet at a convenient location and then walk or take public transportation to various activities. The innovative approach proved quite successful. As of July 31, 2004, BBBS of Metro Milwaukee had generated 203 matches (the program started on October 1, 2003).


Fall 2004