“He knows EVERYBODY.”
….the waitress tells me as I pay for my coffee after a meeting with Mr. Andre Lee Ellis. I wanted to talk with the founder of We Got This, a homegrown organization based on 9th and Ring that puts young black boys to work on Saturday mornings in a community garden and gives them a taste of responsibility, friendship, and most importantly, inspiration. But, it appears, so did everyone else in the coffeeshop. Each person who passed our table got a hug, handshake or high five from Mr. Ellis. This is a man who loves – and is loved – by his community.
Which is why it’s no wonder he started We Got This when a mother came knocking on his doorstep in the summer of 2014 worried that her 11 year old son was going to be arrested for breaking into a house. Mr. Ellis answered the knock and put this young man to work in the garden across the street from his house. That young man brought a few friends, who brought more friends, and by the end of the summer, the garden had nearly 100 boys showing up each week to work, to laugh, to listen and to learn. Naturally, they also weeded, mulched, raked and planted.
“At a time when they were saying we were the worst, and we were the poorest, on Saturdays, one hundred little black boys were gathering on time, because they’ve got to be on time,” he told me.
Eight o’clock is on time, 8:01 is late, otherwise, we’re giving them a minute to be late when it only takes a second to die. So we don’t have a minute to waste.
He was referring to the gun violence in and around his block on Milwaukee’s north side. Violence, he says, that has decreased dramatically since We Got This set out on their mission of restoring a real sense of neighborhood. Each boy who shows up on time and works in the garden for the entire morning walks away with a crisp twenty dollar bill. The boys like getting paid, he says, but that’s not the reason they show up.
It’s a community and a place where they belong. That’s what keeps them coming back, week after week, some of them walking for miles to get there.
Along with other men and women in his community, and with the support of local community leaders like Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive, Chris Abele, Ellis is teaching boys practical skills — how to resolve conflict through words, how to be a leader, how to treat women, and in his words, “putting the ‘neighbor’ back in the ‘hood.’” And of course, how to garden.
I wanted to talk to a mother of one of these boys, to bring the mom perspective front and center. He dialed up Ms. Sharon Purdy and handed me his phone. “I salute Mr. Andre.” She tells me if not for that garden, her boys would be getting up to no good on Saturday mornings. “He’s kept them out of trouble and given them a better understanding of themselves and their future.” After I hand the phone back to Mr. Ellis, he tells Ms. Purdy to have her son Freddy call him because he’s going to help him get a job. There is no doubt he’s committed to these boys.
One Saturday this summer he surveyed his group of 100 boys about their fathers. “Most of the boys get emotional when I talk about their fathers, because they don’t know them,” Ellis tells me, “most of their fathers are in jail or they’re dead.” But Ellis and his team of mentors at We Got This lets the boys know that they are worthy and accountable to their community, and that they can turn things around for themselves.
The garden keeps them busy until the start of school in September. Each December, the boys look forward to the chance to don a tuxedo and parade through the streets of Milwaukee during their 500 Black Tuxedos event. We Got This, along with 250 community mentors want to show 250 boys that they can “dress up their lives before they mess up their lives.” Taking place on December 17th this year, each boy and his mentor will get fitted for a tuxedo and make their way through downtown before ending up at a Black Tie dinner at the Hilton’s Crystal Ballroom.
“Instead of the ‘boys in the hood,’ Ellis says with a smile, they will be the ‘gentlemen on the town.’”
And he’s got big plans for the organization and the these young gentlemen. He’d like to build more neighborly acts into their mornings in the garden: hiring older boys to clean the streets around the garden, helping some of the seniors in the neighborhood move house, or collecting groceries for them. Eventually he’d like to see a resource center next to the garden. A place where young mothers could come for counseling, and to wash their clothes (he envisions a basement with washers and dryers running round the clock). He’d love to build a commercial kitchen so that there was always a pot of soup on the stove and a loaf of bread in the oven to feed his boys and their families.
We Got This is turning lives around. Grade point averages are on the rise, violence is down, 911 calls in this neighborhood have decreased dramatically. Things are looking good on 9th and Ring. And Mr. Ellis is feeling good. “I faked happiness for a long time, but now, in the poorest zip code in America, I’m the happiest man ever.”
There are several ways to give to We Got This:
Donate your time! – they are always looking for help in and around the garden, particularly if you have a green thumb! And kids are welcome too, as are school groups, and any other groups that might want to plan a day-out to help! The gardening with the boys will begin when school is out in June, but prep for the season and getting the beds ready will begin as early as April! Contact Mr. Ellis at We Got This for more information on how to get involved.
Help the garden grow! – the garden can always use seeds, soil, rakes, shovels, gloves, compost or anything else that helps a bountiful harvest!
Give generously! – the boys get paid each and every Saturday without fail and this comes from community members who believe in their mission and give generously. You might also consider sponsoring a young gentleman for a tuxedo fitting for the December event. Support this worthy cause by donating to their organization here.