With the end of the year comes reflection, and plans for the months ahead. And 2016 is a big year for Milwaukee Recreation supervisor Carmelo Cortes. Cortes came to Milwaukee without many plans. He was just 21 when he arrived, coming from Puerto Rico to visit a cousin. He expected to stay a few weeks.
Things did not go according to plan.
“A friend of mine asked me if I wanted a part-time job, and since I was going to stay for a month or so, I figured, [I’d] work and make a little bit of money,” he remembers.
Cortes started working at MPS’ South Division High School in September 1980, as a locker room monitor. His part-time schedule consisted of a three-hour shift each night.
“I hung around for a little bit longer, and then I met my wife,” Cortes explains. “Then my son was born, and I just bought a house and decided, ‘Well…I’m here!’”
Once Cortes became a full-time resident, he also became a full-time employee for the Milwaukee Recreation Department, a division of MPS. He quickly moved up the ranks, from locker room monitor to office worker -- to eventually “recreation supervisor” for the city.
“MPS used to be mainly for education -- it was a 9-to-5, kids go to school, and that’s it,” he remembers. “But through the years, it’s becoming more of a family-oriented place.”
The position with Milwaukee Recreation has given Cortes a unique vantage point, from which to view our city’s kids and families.
“When I first started, my job was to make sure we had the pool open, the gym open, so the kids could have some activities. But at some point, I started noticing that the families were being left behind – the parents,” Cortes recalls. “So, I kind of converted [South Division] into a community center, where the parents started coming in. We did more activities, family-related. I always believe that you get the parents in and let them be with their kids at the end of the night, the parents and their kids go home safely.”
He says that parent-child relationship is something to be treasured. Cortes himself has two children, both of whom went to school in MPS.
“Technology has evolved in such a way where, the kids don’t even look at their parents anymore! They’d rather look at a keyboard, or a computer, or a cell phone,” he says. “That quality time that you don’t spend with your kid because he’s in a cell phone, it’s time you lost.”
The relationships Cortes himself built with the kids he encountered through Milwaukee Rec, are some of his favorite memories from his almost 40-year career.
“The other day…this mom said, ‘I grew up at South Division, Carmelo was the director at the time. And when I grew up, I took my kids there, and he also raised my kids at South Division. And last week, I was at South Division and Carmelo said hi to my grandkid!’” he chuckles.
“When you look back, you think, ‘I didn’t do nothing in life, I just worked,” Cortes says. “Well, I did more than work. Out there somewhere, there’s people that appreciate what I did.”
“When you work with public, you got to give it your best,” he says. “There [are] a lot of people that need things, people that are trying to raise their kids and make their lives better, make sure that their kids learn a little bit more.”
Carmelo Cortes’ last day of work with Milwaukee Recreation was last week Thursday. In the new year, he will move back to Puerto Rico, where he plans to spend the wintry months – he’ll come back to Milwaukee to spend time with his kids and grandkids when the city warms up in spring and summer.
Cortes plans to spend his retirement in Puerto Rico helping open his hometown’s very first community center.