From Milwaukee, With Love

Monday, February 25, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

Featured image: Proviso students with the letter that Milwaukee junior kindergartners sent them in January after two D209 students died by suicide. A group of D209 students took a bus to Milwaukee on Feb. 22 to thank the young people. | Sebastian Hidalgo

Last year, the Proviso Township High Schools District 209 community was traumatized after two Proviso East sophomores — both 15-year-old Hispanics — died by suicide within three weeks.

As the Proviso Township community grieved, a ray of hope came in the form of a letter from a school an hour-and-a-half away in Milwaukee.

“Dear friends,” the letter begins. “We heard you are feeling sad. We hope you feel better soon. Maybe one day we will meet you. We know we could help make you happy. You can be our new friends. We love you. Love, MJDS Junior Kindergarten.”

The hopes of the young students at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School were realized on Feb. 22, when a bus carrying around 15 thankful students from Dist. 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez’s Student Advisory Board arrived at the Day School.

Anyiah Thornton, a 17-year-old junior at Proviso East and an Advisory Board member, said that the kindergartners’ letter resonated deeply with her. Thornton said that she knew one of the students who died last year.

Dan Johnson, D209’s director of student and family services, waits with students inside of Proviso Math and Science Academy on Feb. 22. | Sebastian Hidalgo

“That letter really helped, because it showed me that there’s somebody out there who sees what we’re going through and, particularly, what I’m going through,” she said during an interview hours after visiting the young students.

The idea to write the letter came from Elsie Crawford, the founder of Repairing Together — a project started in August 2016 that produces and executes “thematic social- and environmental-action programming for schools of different cultural and racial backgrounds,” according to the project’s website.

Anthony Brazouski, D209’s assistant superintendent for human resources, is on Repairing Together’s board and once worked at the Indian Community School in Milwaukee, which integrates indigenous cultural values specific to Native American communities into a modern academic curriculum.

This year, Repairing Together connected students from the Indian Community School with those from the Milwaukee Jewish Day School so that young people in those divergent learning settings can grow up together.

Proviso students board a bus headed for Milwaukee on Feb. 22. | Sebastian Hildago

“I started this on my own to think about how I could connect school children of different ages, cultures and backgrounds,” Crawford said during an interview on Feb. 25.

Crawford said that she immigrated to America from the Netherlands 12 years ago and was “appalled” by Milwaukee’s racial segregation. The realization eventually prompted her to act. So Crawford, who is Jewish, called the Day School to ask if they were interested in partnering with her on what would eventually become Repairing Together.

In less than three years, Crawford said, the project has grown from serving 80 students to 430. It’s on track to encompass more than 500 students by August, she said. In July 2018, the Milwaukee Jewish Day School brought the Repairing Together program in-house.

The project’s values were shown in sharp relief late last year when Brazouski told Crawford that he couldn’t attend a board meeting due to the two student suicides — one on Nov. 22 and another on Dec. 9.

Milwaukee Jewish Day School students bond with D209 students in Milwaukee last week. | Courtesy D209

“I told him, ‘That’s mind-boggling,’ and asked if it would be appropriate for one of our classes to send out a letter that said, ‘Hey, we don’t know you, but we care about you.’”

Crawford then contacted Rona Wolfe, a prekindergarten teacher at the Jewish Day School who mobilized her young students for the effort. Wolfe was teaching on Monday afternoon and unavailable to comment.

“When we mailed the letter, we thought that maybe we would get an email at some point, but when we got a call that 15 students were coming with administrators, it touched us deeply,” she said. “Even though they’re not in Milwaukee, we are looking for a continuation of the conversation from now on.”

Crawford said that she hopes to introduce Repairing Together’s curriculum to other communities beyond Milwaukee at some point. 

Thornton said that during her time in the classroom, she had a “personal moment” with Wolfe.

The letter that MJDS junior kindergarten students wrote to D209 students in the wake of two student suicides last year. | Courtesy D209

“I thanked her for being a support and for being there for me,” Thornton said. “I gave her a hug and let her know that I really appreciate that her and her students know what we’re going through.”

Chris Dixon, an advisory board member and 18-year-old senior at Proviso West, said that the letter had a tremendous impact on West. He said that the suicides galvanized the district.

“There was definitely a lot of help for those students who were struggling,” Dixon said.

In a statement, Brazouski said that “as a proud member of the D209 family, it gives me great satisfaction to embrace the Proviso vision of excellence by facilitating leadership experiences for students emerging as contributing members of a dynamic, global society.”

Students of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School with D209 administrators and students. | Courtesy D209

District 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez, who accompanied the students to Milwaukee along with a small team of administrators, praised the student advisory board members.

“I once again experienced first-hand the talent, dedication, passion, and professionalism of our Proviso students in different learning scenarios,” he said in a statement. “I am proud of them and all the teachers and faculty who worked in forming their leadership behaviors to serve as contributing members of a dynamic, global society.”

Jenna Paterod, an 18-year-old senior and an advisory board member, said that the suicides were “a wakeup call for all of the schools in the district to be more aware of what students are dealing with,” adding that the tragedies have “caused more adults to get more involved in our lives.”

Paterod explained that the student advisory board recently initiated a campaign to support attendance and to raise awareness about mental illness.

Alexis Gomez, a 17-year-old junior at Proviso East and an advisory board member, said that he was inspired by her visit.

“This showed me that if you want to do good in the world, you don’t have to do big things,” he said. “The little things matter, too.” VFP

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Alexis Gomez as a female and Rona Wolfe as Rachel Wolfe. VFP regrets the errors.

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