Will Green | Madison, WI
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So I give tribute to them first. But there are several factors that played pivotal roles in making me who I am today. I come from a low-income background. My mom was young, and I never knew my dad, but my grandmother was in my life. My mom, my two younger brothers, and I lived with her for most of my life. My mom tried to move up out of my grandmother’s house three times when I was a young kid. One of those times, we actually had our house robbed, but my grandmother was there for us. Even through all the struggles of being low income, the food stamps and things like that, we were a loving family.
My mom worked hard as a nursing assistant, but sometimes we didn’t have lights, heat, running water. I remember lying in bed thinking that someday I would have a better life than what I had then. We had a loving family, don’t get me wrong, but we just had poverty. And we weren’t the only ones. There were a lot of people around us going through the same things, even if I didn’t know it. Basketball became my refuge through all of the difficult things going on around me
I spent my childhood in Gary, Indiana. I was a 70’s baby, so there was a lot of talk about peace and things like that, but I still had to watch my city evolve into a place with a lot of crime and drugs. Our downtown is all boarded up, and there are a lot of abandoned houses. Sometimes, the garbage wasn’t even picked up. At the time, it just seemed like the normal way of life.
One of the biggest hardships of my youth was my mother’s battle with cancer. She would go into remission, but then it always came back. She had to go back and forth to the hospital a lot, and she lost her breast through that process as well. Then, when I was a junior in high school, my grandmother passed away. She was the staple of the household, so that changed a lot of things. She went to the hospital one day and just never came back.
As a kid, basketball offered me an escape, a way out. I started playing in elementary school, so I was very young. Second to my family, I would say basketball has been one of my greatest influences. I never had a father figure to guide with basketball. Nobody said, ‘Oh, you can be this or you can do that.’ Even when I was a great basketball player and knew I had this great talent, nobody in my family was really guiding that saying, ‘Oh, my God, we can get you to college.’
I was lucky enough to have a great mentor and coach who changed the course of my life. He really inspired me to be persistent and dedicated to perfecting and mastering your craft. His name was Carl Traicoff. He used to call himself an ‘Old Macedonian,’ and he took me and my friends under his wing. He offered us a free basketball camp every summer. Holy smokes, we looked forward to going to that camp because not only did he teach basketball, he taught basketball as life. He was a critical coach, but he was also very introspective about human behavior. I remember him teaching us at a very young age to do integral things like how to shake hands web-to-web, or making sure you look people in the eye, stuff like that. He challenged us not only on the basketball court, but also in life. He coached for over 20 years in Northwest Indiana, and he did a lot of great work with low-income kids. Even though we were not in a big school, he always was able to compete with the system he had us in. That’s what a lot of good coaches have: good systems. No matter what kind of player you have, if you got a good system, you can compete.
Around 5 or 6 years ago, I was coming home from a conference in L.A., and learned that Carl had passed away. I jumped in the car and drove from Madison to Gary as soon as I got home. I arrived at his funeral just as they were putting him in the ground, so I was able to make it. I miss him a lot.
Carl taught us to be good people, and that translates to everything I do in my life. He had this thing where he used to put the letters P. M. S. on all our jerseys. He said he wanted us to connect the physical, mental, and spiritual because that’s who we are as human beings. He was always able to have those kinds of discussions with us. Nowadays, I bring that same philosophy into the work that I do with the kids I mentor.
I didn’t even realize that was something I wanted because I didn’t have anybody guiding me through the process. I feel like if my dad had been around, I could have really been a more confident kid or had that son-dad relationship and guidance. I truly missed that. I wanted that mentorship in my life. I don’t have any ill will towards him, but I used that absence as motivation to push my life to the next level.
That’s part of the reason I am passionate about mentoring. Leadership was always part of my life, even when I didn’t realize it. My brothers and I were always close, but it wasn’t until my wedding that I truly knew my impact on them. They were my best men and to hear them talk about how I shaped their life and who they were was pretty significant. So that translated into our family’s life right now. My wife and I always wanted to make sure our kids were never going to be in poverty, and that we were laying the foundations for generational wealth, and setting our kids up for the next stage of their life and their kids.
I truly believe how you are in your household is what your kids are going to become, so I make sure my kids see me happy every day and see a smile every day. I wanted to be the best father to them. I give them the love and tenderness they need, especially growing up in the early stages. We keep a very positive household because that’s what I needed as a kid.
For me, as a kid, there was nothing more joyful than going outside with a basketball in my hand and mastering the skill of shooting. My coach was a very integral shooting coach. That was one of his most prominent skills. I followed his recipe, and I became a great shooter. That’s why I was very successful in my basketball career, and I was the two-time MVP at UW-Eau Claire. I led the team in scoring even though I am only 5’10”. Mastering that skill built my confidence and led me to being the community leader I am today.
I started at Kankakee Community College right out of high school in 1989, and attended for two years. Then I transferred to UW-Eau Claire. I finished my junior and senior year at UW-Eau Claire playing basketball. I also met my wife in college, and we’ve been together for over 30 years. I finished my basketball career in ’93, and stayed in Eau Claire for a little bit afterward working in the crisis department at a treatment facility called the Eau Claire Academy. That’s where I really got a lot of experience working with high-risk youth, kids that were going through troubled times. I also did two years of assistant coaching and really loved it.
I came to Madison in 2001. My wife and I got married in 2002, and we had our first child in 2003. I worked with kids at the Dane County Shelter Home, and then with the County’s Community Adolescent Programs. My job was to support them in the community, but I also had to report to the court, the social workers, and anybody in the kid’s life. I was given the most high-risk African-American kids. I knew how to de-escalate kids if they were fighting or high-strung. It was tough work, but from my own childhood experiences, I knew I had a special quality to connect with youth in high-risk situations. Although I was building a relationship with the kids, they were like, ‘You cool, but you still part of this system.’ I thought about that a lot when I later developed my mentoring business.
My mom was still dealing with breast cancer during that time as well. She ended up passing away when she was 46 years old. I went back to Gary for 6 months and watched her take her last breath. After that, I came home and just wanted to do something different.
That’s what pushed me over the edge to become an entrepreneur. I quit my full-time job. We just had our first daughter, and I started Mentoring Positives. My mom’s name was Muriel Pipkins, so I took the M and the P and created Mentoring Positives. I turned my pain into passion and started mentoring kids and families that I was coming in contact with.
I started coaching an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball program around that time as well. My daughter actually joined the team when she was in kindergarten. We were running the program through Mentoring Positives out of the Darbo Salvation Army over on the east side of Madison. Ever since then, I have been coaching. I had the head coaching job at La Follette High School in 2016. So I’ve been doing it a long time, but it still brings me joy.
Having a motivational basketball coach that taught me how to be a great player and learn critical life skills showed me the value of a good mentor. Doing Community Adolescent Programs as a Supervision Counselor put me around a lot of social workers, DAs, and judges, so I knew the system. When I moved to mentoring, I knew how to try to steer kids away from that system. I knew all the ins and outs. That experience really helped when I started mentioning to social workers that I was venturing out and starting my own mentoring thing. It was not long before I had 20 kids I was mentoring in the community.
At the start, Mentoring Positives was an LLC. I was basically scheduling myself with four or five mentees throughout the day, for two-hour sessions each. We would go out, and I mentored by doing different activities. Sometimes I was taking them to museums in the city, or we were singing in the car, shooting hoops at parks, going to look at Olbrich Gardens, looking at the lake, or different things that the city had to offer. I was just spending time with the kids and really building relationships with them. So that’s what my day consisted of, but I was able to make my own schedule around those individual mentoring sessions throughout the week. That’s how we first got started, and it was really pretty simple to make that happen. It worked at the time.
In the beginning, it was all contractual work. It was $25 an hour that you spend with a kid, so I always knew the fee I would be getting for my work. After a while, we moved away from that individual mentoring. Instead, we are doing group mentoring, kind of like Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I also changed the company to become a nonprofit thinking that we could raise more funding for the organization, but I found out that was very tough. I think people can take it lightly that mentoring is easy. It’s draining work, trying to inspire people and move young people to positive spaces. Money was never something that motivated me, building kids and people up was my motivation. But now we do have different contracts with the city.
We’ve been in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood, which is an Eastside neighborhood, for all of our existence. I was using the Darbo Salvation Army Community Center for programming, which was great.
In those early days, however, the kids did not like me. The basketball court in the community center was a place that a lot of kids liked to use for different activities, so when I came in to do my basketball groups for the first time, they couldn’t use it. I had the gym closed off to the whole community for those two-hour sessions twice a week. Kids were allowed to come in there, but they had to come in and talk about the life issues and things they were going through before any basketball. If they didn’t want to follow that format, I didn’t allow them to come in the gym. But for me, it wasn’t really about basketball. Basketball was the hook, but I wanted them to learn life skills. My motto is “The hook is the key.” Once we hook the boys in the gym, then the playbook is about critical life skills, like how to deal with adversity and take responsibility for your actions. The kids didn’t want me in the building, but I had a big mission and purpose.
Long story short, a lot of kids fell in line with what I was doing and eventually became the ambassadors of the space. Anybody else coming in knew what they were coming into. But the most significant thing is that I met these kids at eight or nine years old, and I’m still in contact with them today. This is our 19th year and I can see the impact of our mentoring. After one group discussion where I talked about not having a father in my life, one of the kids said he knew he was going to always be in his kid’s life.
Basketball was always a staple, but we have other programming as well. We work with kids from elementary school through high school. We held boys and girls groups that focused on talking about socio-emotional things, not having a father, peer pressure, and conflict resolution, all those things that we learned from our expertise at the residential treatment facility. On top of that, we provided different enrichment activities like swimming lessons through those groups.
We have different organizations in the community that fund us now, we have a lot of individual donors and people that really support us. We’ve been getting a lot of support in that way now that allows us to do the work and dream big. There have been a lot of trials and tribulations, but we are on a good path right now.
From there, I connected with Will Allen down in Milwaukee, who was doing urban gardening in the city. He was putting dirt on parking lots and growing food, but he was actually a basketball player, too.
So one day, this community member came through our neighborhood and he was like, ‘Man, we have got to get the kids doing something. Let’s make salsa.’ I agreed with him, so I was like, ‘Let’s make salsa.’
From there, I took some of the basketball boys off the court to start making salsa. Holy Cross Church, which was their name at the time, gave us an acre of land to get going. We grew tomatoes and peppers on that acre, and used that produce to make a limited production of salsa. We made a mild and spicy salsa.
I was in a sustainability leadership program, so I was trying to be sustainable, but if I hadn’t had a true trusting relationship with those boys at that time, they probably wouldn’t have been out there in the garden. I had African-American teen boys who had never gardened planting these peppers and tomatoes. Some of them said that it was peaceful out there just smelling the vegetables. They were able to really embrace it. We didn’t have an irrigation sprinkler or anything like that, so we were filling up jugs of water and pouring water on the plants. I knew I could depend on those boys to show up and make that stuff happen. It was a real joy to see that process. Sometimes you don’t even realize the process in the moment, only after the fact when you can reflect on it.
Soon after we started, I started thinking that selling the salsa would be a great way to raise revenue for Mentoring Positives, so I don’t have to ask for money all the time. So we started building up different parts of the salsa business. We started teaching marketing and other business skills to the kids. They were able to meet with business people and they learned a lot from that.
It was the kids who came up with the name Off The Block Salsa. They chose it because they were using the program to get themselves “off the block.” That was important for them because there was a lot of hard stuff happening on the ‘block.’
When we were making the first batches of salsa, Tim Metcalfe from Metcalfe Market heard about it and asked if he could have the salsa in his stores. So we put the salsa in Metcalfe’s. We knew we couldn’t supply the full demand ourselves, so we reached out to a processing company in Sister Bay, and a woman named Mary Pat Carlson started producing the salsa for us. We made about 500 jars in our first production run, and it sold out in two days.
The kids were like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ Ever since then, we’ve been doing it. We moved production back to Madison about two or three years ago and started producing the salsa ourselves in the Feed Kitchen on the north side. That’s a shared kitchen space. Now, our products are available at all Willy Street Co-ops, Hilldale, West Town, and Regent Street Market, Edinger Surgical Options and Metcalfe’s. Plus, we just opened up our own storefront on East Washington St., a street with a lot of traffic.
That building has apartments on the upper floors, but the ground level is about 8,000 square feet of retail space. We have 2000 square feet for Off The Block. So the kids actually produce the salsa and pizza in that storefront. We had a great relationship with the developer, and they were able to connect with some donors who wanted to build the space just for us. We couldn’t turn it down. It’s a beautiful space and the kids take a lot of pride in it. We sell frozen pizza and salsa there, but we are also serving hot pizza as well. We just did a ribbon cutting on May 18th. The place is called Muriel’s Place after my mother.
Mentoring Positives has been around for almost 20 years, and I feel like now we have the things in place and can really move kids in the right direction.
Right now, I’m 52 and have so much clarity around the vision where I want to go. But looking back, I always had things around me that shaped my life, whether I knew it at the time or not. In Gary, I lived in a neighborhood called Small Farms. I was surrounded by hogs, horses, chickens, and gardening, and now here I am all these years later making salsa. I feel like I am just a vehicle, and that this path was already laid for me. I’m just enjoying the ride and really feel that I am where I’m supposed to be.