Over the last quarter century, one block at 1st and Center in Milwaukee has become an oasis. It took years of caring and prayers pouring out of Clara Atwater.
Many call her Mother Clara. Her house is a colorful sea of bright pinks and purples. She dubbed the place an unlikely name, Gingerbread Land.
“It’s our 25th anniversary this year and it was conceived because of all the neglect that was down here," Mother Clara says. "It was a terrible area – gangs, shootings, fighting and people acting silly all the time and we decided to take the neighborhood back."
She says she won over some neighbors and others left.
Mother Clara started a church – Love Tabernacle – across the street. The former Masonic temple is nearly 100 years old and shuttered for repair, but Mother Clara keeps her vision squarely on this moment.
“One of our dreams has come to pass – having an orchard," she says. "We’ve seen them in other areas - I’m not one to toot my horn loud; I believe your works will toot for you - and today is like a dream come true."
On her porch, volunteers have stacked canned soup and other nonperishable edibles. People often stop in for food or clothing. Over the years, Mother Clara has sheltered, fed and loved dozens of children whose parents were unable or absent. One is her own grandson, Devon Jones.
“My father was murdered when I was two and my mother was out in the street addicted to crack cocaine so she adopted me when I was two years old and raised me,” Jones says.
Jones says growing up he didn’t understand his grandmother’s commitment to give to others. “I actually saw her help outsiders and strangers more than us and I would get angry sometimes," he says. "See her put all her money in church and we’d be hungry sometimes. She made those sacrifices when I was growing up I didn’t understand why."
Jones struck out on his own at age 16. “I didn’t like the rules that she had when she adopted me and raised me," he says. "So, I wanted to be free and I basically got there selling dope, selling weed; I was robbing people,” Jones says.
Within a year, Jones was in jail and the cycle continued for a decade. He was released this March from what he calls his final incarceration.
Inspired by his grandmother, Jones has become involved in forming a program to teach men in the neighborhood to respect and love one another. It’s called Mission: Man Up.
“My primary source of being strong and being motivated is my spirituality – I’m a Christian," Jones says. "Mission: Man Up plays a huge part in keeping me focused....looking at the things around me in the community and knowing what’s valuable position I can play to make that change,” Jones says.
“He’s been through a lot,” says Toussaint Harris. He leads Mission Man Up and is Jones’ cousin. “He can share a lot of experiences, relate to them even on a more intimate level. He’s been through a lot rougher situations than I have,” he adds.
Harris says he’s following their grandmother’s example.
“It was always in me; she planted the seed in there but I guess it took 37 years for it to finally blossom and for me to start comprehending the Bible better and...applying to my life,” Harris says.
The 37 year old freely admits he’s fallen short at times. Although he worked his way through a five-year apprenticeship to become an electrician, he sold drugs on the side.
“I sold lots and lots of cocaine; I didn’t need to but it was just the rush and greed for the money,” Harris says.
The cousins believe they’re on a path to help other men create better futures.
“From watching our grandmother doing it – training them and put that down in them – confidence and being a leader and speaking positive and never saying anything negative about anything," Harris says. "Worry about nothing, pray about everything is what I like to say."
Devon Jones says the desire to change has to come from within an individual.
“We’re just here to provide opportunities, motivation, encouragement and some guidance; keep that door open," Jones says. "If I reach out to someone and he’s not and he’s not ready at that moment, I’m always going to have that door open for him to come back; even if he messes up one time, two times, three times, four times. It took me years."
Mother Clara watches her grandsons leave her house.
“You just spoke with two wonderful men young men. They both have records, but look at them now – no drugs, no dealing and now they work with me to make the neighborhood be kept up,” Mother Clara says.
The matriarch hopes more men learn to uplift each other.
“If we don’t get them to stop and come together and communicate and become a body, they’ll shoot," Mothe Clara says. "They’re angry. They have to learn to care about one another."
Mother Clara says she’s only given so much time here on earth; all she can do is hope her message takes root.