by Samantha Haas
on Tuesday, November 30th, 2021 at 9:41am.
What started as a Kiwanis Club service project in the 1950s to support young people has grown into the largest neighborhood center for all ages in Madison. The Goodman Community Center has been serving the community -- predominantly those living on the northeast side of the city -- for the last 70 years. Through the connected values of integrity, respect, caring, equity, and trust, Goodman’s mission is to strengthen lives and secure futures.
“The way I think about that is helping folks in the here and now and setting folks up for long-term success as well,” said Jon Lica, Director of Corporate & Community Relations. Programs range from urgent services such as the food pantry to those that “help young folks build themselves into the adults they want to be,” and everything in between. That includes bingo and euchre tournaments, exercise and art classes, and other recreational opportunities like basketball and ping pong for youth and adults.
Perhaps you’ve driven by the historic Brass Works and Iron Works buildings on Waubesa Street that Goodman recently restored for its facilities, or biked by its splash pad and community garden along the Capital City Trail. “Our stunning facilities are also available to rent for events like weddings, baby showers, and conferences,” Lica said, though rentals are currently limited because of the pandemic. “We have full catering with a liquor license, and when you hire us to do your event and select in-house catering, you’re also giving food service opportunities to teens with barriers to employment.”
This sprawling campus is led by Letesha Nelson, who became the CEO and Executive Director in January 2021. As part of Goodman’s strategic plan, Lica said that Nelson often talks about three primary ways she sees its vision moving into the future. First, empowering staff to grow, thrive, and provide the best programming they can for the people they serve. Second, engaging more intentionally with the families to evaluate what they need and provide resources that are more relevant to them. Third, placing a greater emphasis on college and career readiness for youth of all ages.
Goodman employs about 85 full-time staff with more help in the summer to sustain its youth programming. Lica said that the majority of youth get full or partial scholarships to participate as part of the nonprofit’s commitment to “serving the highest needs folks in our communities.” Throughout the rest of the year, Lica said that 60% of Goodman’s resources go to positive outcomes for young people, including its preschool, after school or out of school time programs for elementary, middle, and high schoolers, and “Seed to Table” entrepreneurial program that introduces urban agriculture and culinary arts to prepare students for work in the food service industry.
The pandemic has only further illuminated the importance of the nonprofit’s comprehensive programs, particularly to help people meet their basic needs. “When the world shut down, we all went right to work and pivoted immediately to help people in our community who really depend on us for childcare, food, and social connection,” Lica said. “We work tirelessly to find ways to meet folks, whether that’s calling seniors to check in or holding outdoor coffee meet-ups to connect.”
The biggest shift, however, has been in food resources and finding ways to best utilize Goodman’s four on-site kitchens. “At the height of Covid, the food pantry saw triple the amount of use, and we were producing 4,000 meals per week and delivering them to nearby communities,” Lica said. The food pantry is open three days a week, serving about 150-200 families in Dane County each week. People can visit weekly as a consistent and “resourceful way to stretch their budget,” he added.
“There’s so many people in this community who really need help, and a lot of folks who honestly can’t relate to it,” Lica said. “Living in poverty can feel awful, and then imagine all those things you already struggle with -- housing, employment, and food security -- have all been rocked the last year and a half. It just compounds, and we are bracing ourselves for this to get a lot worse.”
Although the center is closed to the public during the pandemic, people can help by volunteering, making unrestricted donations, and contributing to food drives, holiday gift drives, and back to school supply drives. Thank you to everyone who dropped off non-perishable food items at our office for the Thanksgiving Basket Drive, meant to feed 4,000 families (about 25,000 Dane County residents)! To learn more, visit goodmancenter.org, follow them on social media, and sign up for their e-newsletter.