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Packers' Old Turf Helps Revitalize South Side Milwaukee Neighborhood

The Journey House Packer Football Stadium in Mitchell Park has been recognized by Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation for building community.On Wednesday night, the organization will find out of they won the Brewers Community Foundation Public Space Award.

Journey House rallied support for the field and believes the entire project is playing a role in the Clarke Square neighborhood and beyond.

Charles Brown is keeper of the stadium keys and director of youth programs at Journey House, which serves nearby families living in poverty on Milwaukee’s near south side.

“I thought I had some things I could offer to the kids - I had traveled around the world; 26 years of Air Force experience; I’ve been to college and graduated so I thought that I could bring something to the table,” Brown says.

A fellow military retiree introduced Brown to Journey House and he came on board in 2003.

Brown says he rallied a battalion of six to eight year olds to form a youth football program, but faced an unanticipated challenge – coaching kids did not come naturally.

“I thought, I’m not sure what I’m doing; I mean I had football experience; I played in school, but this coaching thing was a little bit different in terms of coaching and organizing kids,” Brown says.

So Brown traveled to coaching workshops – at his own expense.

“They’d say, why are you coming all the way to Wisconsin all the way to Boston, yeah I kind of explained what I was doing,” Brown says.

What he was not out to do was to construct a football stadium, but opportunity came tapping, when Brown made his first training trip to Lambeau Field.

“When I introduced myself I said, our team happens to be the Packers and we’re on sacred ground just to be here to talk,” Brown says.

In 2009, the Green Bay Packers invited the peewees to scrimmage during halftime – a pre-season tradition.

“But they had never had any teams that had pro names,” Brown says.

Nor the field dotted with miniature Packers. It got even better, Brown says, when his team scored.

“On the first play our kids scored and got a Lambeau leap. That Lambeau Leap actually got on ESPN top ten plays of the day, so that was nationwide,” Brown says.

Later that year, the Packers called Brown – the team was replacing one of its outdoor practice fields.

If he could find a way to move the sixty rolls of turf from Green Bay to Milwaukee, it was his. Journey House scrambled to come up with trucks.

“So on the 7th of November 2009, we loaded it up on four flat beds and one of our board members stored it for us for three years until we were able to raise the money to get the field in,” Brown says.

Executive director Dr. Michele Bria, says Journey House created the stadium with private, not public, funds.

"It’s a state of the art stadium with lights and you can see the goal posts, we’re sitting on these fabulous bleachers, we have a sound system and score board and a full concession stand,” Bria says.

But both Bria and Brown say there’s more to the field than meets the eye. The field has an impressive storm water system - any water that falls on the turf percolates to the lagoon below.

“This is an outdoor classroom and more than teaching the foundational skills; it’s about character development,” Bria says.

“What can we teach in football,” Charles Brown adds, “that will enhance a kid’s character and their life skills.”

He says on registration day, “players” must present his – or her – library card. By the end of the season, each child writes a book report.

Next season, the coach will incorporate a study hall for the “senior” team – 12 through 14 year olds. Brown is already scheduling guest speakers.

“And we have a long list of people who are going to come in and talk with the kids every week about their careers and how they got there," Brown says. "The reason we started that, and I can tell you this, traveling around the country; at the youth level there isn’t much going on in terms of developing character and life skills systematically."

Michele Bria says the field figures into new life for the entire neighborhood.

"We have a new bridge that goes into Three Bridges Park right into the Menomonee Valley, so last summer this park became even more active than it usually is; which produced some really outstanding results,” Bria says.

She says last summer there were no shootings or homicides in the neighborhood.

Charles Brown would like to think it’s because families are beginning to see – and feel – a changing environment.

"I think parents and kids get to be part of something, and be part of something that’s developing at an excellent level and (teaching) things that will go beyond the football field,” Brown says.

Both Charles Brown and the Journey House Packer Football Stadium are among 16 finalists for a MANDI.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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