Opal Tomashevska grew up in the Wexford Apartments on Madison’s west side. Her family was poor, but her mother was one of the tenants who worked tirelessly to form the Wexford Ridge Neighborhood Center in two renovated apartments.
“The odds of me going to college, much less grad school, just based on my address alone, were slim,” she said. But, “because of the center, my childhood poverty was offset.”
She learned to swim at summer day camp, got free school supplies every year and played on the neighborhood Wexford Warriors softball team.
“On that softball field, being a girl didn’t matter. Being poor didn't matter,” she said. “As an adult, I can look back and appreciate how those moments changed my perspective on myself and what my life could be.”
That little neighborhood center became the Lussier Community Education Center at 55 S. Gammon Road. At a press conference on Thursday, Tomashevska, now the multicultural business strategy manager at CUNA Mutual, helped announce a CUNA Mutual Group Foundation gift of $300,000 to expand the center’s programming for the next generation of Wexford kids.
Today, LCEC provides an array of services including afterschool and summer programming, food programs, recreational and fitness activities and even a community radio program. LCEC is founded on the idea that everyone has something to offer, and provides kids with opportunities to "find that thing that ignites a passion in them,” said Paul Terranova, executive director of the center.
That includes giving them chances to learn violin with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, experiment with acting with Children’s Theater of Madison, go horseback riding with Hoofers and watch University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry professors “light things on fire and blow things up,” he said.
LCEC is not set out to “fix broken people,” Terranova said. “We’re a vehicle to galvanize the community to take care of itself.”
CUNA Mutual’s gift will expand offerings by investing in the center’s $1 million dollar campaign of sustaining gifts to facilitate long-term commitment. CUNA Mutual is donating $100,000 outright, with an additional $200,000 as a community challenge matching gift. CUNA Mutual will triple the amount of the first year of any new contributions to the campaign, up to its $200,000 limit.
The campaign will allow the center to “maximize outdoor adventure” by expanding its summer day camp from a half day to a full day, double the number of Jane Burrows Buffett Scholars from 10 to 20 and fund coordination with John Muir Elementary school.
The Jane Burrows Buffett Scholars program accepts two students entering ninth grade and supports them throughout their high school career on the way to college, helping them connect to tutors, boost their leadership skills and find community service opportunities. The campaign will double that program, allowing for four incoming students a year.
When Muir Elementary hired an individual who was already working with elementary students at LCEC, the center saw that the connection was “incredibly instrumental” in helping both organizations better understand the students. LCEC or the school might have information about a kid’s reading level, emotional struggles or family issues that was helpful to the other.
To make that cooperation sustainable, not just when the two organizations “happen to share an employee,” Terranova said, part-time staff at LCEC will be able to spend a few hours a week at the elementary school.
CUNA Mutual has a long history with LCEC, as it provided the first major corporate gift for the center’s capital campaign to construct a building in 1979. Betty Harris Custer, Jan Loiselle and Paul Harrison were on that original capital campaign team and are current supporters of the center.
“It’s remarkable to be in this space and remember the days when we were in these two renovated apartments,” Harris Custer said. “To see what it’s come to and what they’re doing in this space just makes my heart swell.”
Harrison said that while “a lot of tremendous things did happen in those little apartments,” investments like CUNA Mutual’s gift mean “the impact is just that much greater.”
Loiselle was confident the center will continue to do what it does best.
“I think there’s a lot of conversation about diversity and inclusion … and things that we care about as a community, and this place really does live that,” she said. “If you look at somebody who has been doing this for a very long time, it is this center.”