Nehemiah was created in the mid 1990′s in response to the unmet social, academic and spiritual needs of at-risk and disenfranchised African American and biracial children in the greater Madison community. For nearly twenty years, Nehemiah has focused on empowering children, youth and families that are economically disadvantaged and socially at-risk. We have done this primarily through culturally relevant educational and social service support programs.

Our staff members have worked to affirm our clients and treat them like partners in their own plans of care. These services have ranged from after-school learning programs for younger children to rites of passage and youth employment programs for teens, to therapeutic mentoring services for children who were diagnosed as severely emotionally disturbed, to family counseling programs for parents who are stressed, overwhelmed and in need of advocacy.

We have successfully served and empowered thousands of participants over the past two decades. Many of our alumni have earned high school diplomas, gained college degrees, lived drug-free lives, developed healthier families and have found meaningful employment.

Awards or other distinctions:

  • 2005 Wisconsin Supplier Development Council Award of Excellence
  • 2002 AFP Outstanding Fundraising Professional Award
  • 1995 Madison Community Foundation’s Community Asset Builder Award
  • 1994 MLK, Jr. Award (City of Madison Humanitarian Award)

A Nehemiah History
by Nancy Sanborn, with Alex Gee

The “What if” Game

“What if?”

A person speaking these words might be filled with anxiety and fear about potential disasters. Or the speaker could be wallowing in regret, wondering how things might be different if only he or she could change something done– or not done–in the past. In the early 1980s, Alex Gee and his African American friends, most of them students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke the words to each other often. But instead of fear or regret, their “what if” were full of excitement and hope.

The students asked each other that same question so often that they soon dubbed their conjectures the “What if Game.” Dreaming of some corporate entity in which they could pool their respective talents and education for the good of the community, they envisioned their future roles.”Lil, what if you were the social worker? . . . Tracy, what if you could use your teaching degree? . . . Alex, what if you could focus on economic development? . . . Jackie and Rodney, what if you could add your business sense? . . . David, what if you could use your community organizing skills?”

Perhaps the biggest threat to the eventual realization of this fragile dream was the very real temptation for these educated, young African Americans to move away after graduation. Madison’s black population in the early 1980s was small, and the number of college-educated blacks who were well employed and accepted in the larger population even smaller. Wouldn’t they fit in better, be more comfortable and have more opportunities in a larger metropolitan area where they could become part of an established black community?

But Alex and his friends wanted something more than comfort. When Alex challenged them to stay in Madison to give back to the community and help build a black middle class, they took up the challenge and made the difficult decision to stick it out. In the minds of these Christian young people, that commitment was part of being the Church.

Fast forward to 1987 . . . Many of these same UW-Madison students had graduated and formed the core of Union Tabernacle Church (UT), located on Badger Road on Madison’s South Side. Alex Gee and David Smith, by then ordained ministers, became UT’s Head Pastor and Associate Pastor respectively. And they had not forgotten the “what if” dream.

The Madsens host a”Magical” Meal

The dreamers continued to share their vision with others outside their circle. In the next few years, seemingly unrelated events converged to provide the catalyst needed to transform “what if” to “we can.”

Christ Presbyterian Church (CPC), a predominantly white congregation, was going through a revision of their mission focus from “only writing checks” to encouraging church members to become personally involved. One outcome of this new activist approach was Project Opportunity. Between 1980 and 1990, Madison’s black population doubled. As a result of Illinois’ policy changes and the closing of the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, many African Americans moved to Madison in hopes of making a better life for their families. The rapid influx of newcomers hoping to be assimilated brought some challenges as well, particularly as the new students tried to adjust to Madison’s public schools. Project Opportunity was designed to address this issue by mentoring middle school students and providing them with the help and encouragement needed to get them through high school and into college.

Carrie Barnhart, who worked on Project Opportunity at Marquette Middle School, met Alex’s sister, Lilada Gee, who also worked at the school. She asked Lilada and Alex to be mentors for the program and suggested that they meet CPC Missions Director Norma Madsen, who spearheaded Project Opportunity, and her husband Doug. At the same time, Ron and Roz Greer, who worked with the Madsens in Young Life, urged them to get acquainted with the Gees.

The Madsens felt the Gees’ vision might be relevant to CPC’s ongoing exploration of the question, “Who are we called to be in the world?” To learn more, they invited Alex, along with his wife Jackie, Lilada and her fiancé Duane Lewis, and Ron and Roz Greer to a dinner in their home. Also present were CPC Pastor Craig Barnes and his wife.

The Madsens’ hospitality produced more than a pleasant shared meal; the dinner planted the seeds out of which grew a multi-faceted partnership between the two congregations.”It was a magical evening,” Craig recalls. “Everything connected and we knew the Holy Spirit had showed up, that we had to do something together.”

“I’ve never seen anyone else use hospitality for the Kingdom of God like Norma,” Craig adds. “I can’t overstate how important the Madsens were. They opened their home and kept inviting people over for dinner. They created social opportunities and kept people talking to each other.”

Because many of the students in Project Opportunity were black, there was a need for additional African American mentors who could also serve as positive role models. “We knew we needed to work with an African American church,” Craig recalls. After the Madsens’ dinner, some members of UT became mentors in the CPC-run program. Craig also credits them with helping city schools learn the best ways to assimilate the newcomers. He acknowledges that Project Opportunity was only partially successful for the students, but adds that the mentors from both congregations were dramatically changed by the experience. Collaboration in the program further strengthened ties between CPC and UT.

But the most important and lasting fruit of the Madsens’ first dinner party with UT members was yet to come.