Q&A with Tom Moen of EMCC

Can you tell us about yourself and about your organization?

My name is Tom Moen and I am the executive director, and I have been for 47 years. It was my first job out of college – I never applied for another job or updated resume. We have a big impact on kids and families, and I love coming to work every day.

The East Madison Community Center is located in the center of a housing project. We’re celebrating our 55th anniversary. We started out in two little apartments in the 60’s, and since then moved into our own building. We’ve done 3 additions since then. We offer full-service programs and serve elementary middle and high school, including adults, family and seniors.

We serve low-income families, almost all of them people of color, African and Asian American families. Programs run across the spectrum of nutritional, educational, cultural, employment, and some multicultural arts programs. Our primary focus is on the kids, though. We have a program for preschool kids and their parents, which is currently on hiatus because of COVID – they’ve been closed but essentially getting resources donated like diapers and masks for families that need them.

I’ve been here 47 years, our youth program manager has been here 36 years, three of our youth workers have been here 10 years so has the administrative assistant. Our accountant and youth staff have been here for 6 years – that’s kind of what separates us from a lot of other community services and non-profits. To have all these amazing people for so long, it adds stability with the program and trust with the neighborhood. We develop partnerships with other nonprofits that we do programs together with.

Can you give us an overview of your DFAD project?

We moved in our own building in 1981, it was not much bigger than the apartments we were previously in. We were happy to have toilets and thermostats. We did three building additions since then, so it was done in four different chunks. We still had the original tiles on the floor from 1981 – they used to be white, but they had dirt buried in them so deep it was impossible to get out. We try to be family-friendly and have people come in here and be impressed about what a nice place this is. So, when we did the DFAD project they put in new flooring, they did the whole place except for the gym.

First, the DFAD team interviewed kids and staff and parents and looked at all the rooms and took notes. After all the input they were given, they booted us out of the center for two weeks and renovated. I was fortunate to come back and the whole wall in front of me is now an ocean view with palm trees and other things. I didn’t know what was going to be in front of me when it was done.

They updated everyone’s office, our library, our meeting rooms, our computer lab, our preteen and teen rooms, another conference room, and our first impressions room.

The day we got to come back in on the grand reopening and we had to wait outside. We came in the multipurpose room with blindfolds over our eyes. At one point we took our eye covers off and got to see the new teen room – and it was stunning! We had pool tables and shuffleboard and darts and all kinds of fun stuff. All the flooring was new, the walls were painted and beautiful, and a graffiti artist came in and made these cool designs. Bright colors. They did the same thing with the preteen rooms and hallways and computer rooms. Everything is so much brighter and more welcoming.

The final product made the center much cheerier, more professional; it was good for everyone’s self-esteem and also the participants.

We give a lot of tours to the center, so often times we will have someone who is interested in learning more about the center, and when we give them a tour, they say it looks organized and professional and fun.

There are nick-nacks and things hanging from the ceiling. We got this brand-new signage, it’s in the shape of a rainbow and there are signs with arrows pointing to each room. Everything is clean, functional, clever, cute, and showstopping.

Do you think the design has an effect on the kids that use the facilities?

They take pride in the center and almost all of them volunteer here. This is their center, to have it look nice when they bring their friends is a big deal. They spend more time here than they do at home – this is ground zero. So, just the cheery bright look helps to feel good about being here.

The best part is we have an educational regiment program – half the kids were dropping out of high school and now we have kids graduating and going to college. We have kids at Stanford and University of Wisconsin. It’s part of the fun of working here – seeing kids grow up and break out of poverty.

What was your favorite part of the DFAD project?

I’d say the flooring was my favorite part. You don’t get a second chance for a first impression, so being able to see the difference between the old tiles and the new flooring was huge.

They restored one of our closets into a new cubby and it has bean bag chairs and carpet.

Another thing they did is they had program participants write down one word they think of when they come to this center. Back by the computer lab they painted these words like, family, friends, as a reminder which is a nice touch.

In the library they built a little stage with carpet and the kids play up there with a little tunnel.

I have seen DFAD projects, and it is such a game changer. It’s an amazing program – all the time all these volunteers put in is impressive.

Do you have kids you’re still in touch with from when you first started?

Kids come here at a young age and when they turn 14, we can hire them as teen workers. By the time they’re 17, they’ve got three or four years of work experience, three years of volunteering, and they’ve got a resume better than most adults.

Our board president is one of those kids who started out here in kindergarten. When he was in college, he was a youth worker here. He worked here for 8 or 9 years, then he went to the school district, and now he is board president. Two of our staff won youth worker of the year award recently.

Another young lady volunteered and got a job when she was 14 here. She is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, but after working here for a year has decided to be a social worker. Her sister is the treasurer on our board. The two most powerful people of our board are kids that literally grew up here.