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Now Taking Flight: Above the Clouds

For dancer and artist Linda Wade, the desire to start a small nonprofit all began with some time behind bars.

In the 1990s, Wade had been touring women’s prisons across the nation with a troupe of other performers. The group shared their passion for the arts with inmates in the hopes that their performances would inspire the women to make a positive change in their own lives. But, she soon realized that the most effective, long-term way to help change the course for many struggling Milwaukee families would come from reaching children before trouble reached them.

“I did some soul-searching and asked: What’s my plan?” she said. “With some divine guidance, I discovered that nothing’s impossible, and that’s what I want our children to realize.”

In 2002, she set aside a career in substance abuse recovery and prevention to create Above the Clouds, a faith-based nonprofit that brings free dance, music and other arts programming to city kids and teens who might otherwise lack the opportunity.

An $80,000 Helen Bader Foundation grant is helping Above the Clouds expand its offerings, add a part-time staffer, and set a strong plan for the future. Beyond the programming itself, Foundation support has also helped the organization strengthen its board governance, an important step for smaller nonprofits that need to know how to diversify tasks that keep an agency running in the long term.

“Today, our board members are our biggest champions. They have a wealth of knowledge they use on our behalf,” said Wade. “Above the Clouds has touched thousands of children over the years, and we want to be able to continue strong.”

Sessions are led by trained arts educators who help kids explore a variety of movement styles, from ballet to cheer to Latin dance, as well as music and drama. Above the Clouds works with community groups such as COA Youth and Family Services and Destiny Youth Plaza to reach as many kids as possible. Each year, it reaches more than 450 children by operating at nine sites throughout the city.

Dance educator Kim Brunner has been working with Above the Cloud’s program at HeartLove Place on the near north side. Along with movement classes, children also receive instruction in drama and music. “They really enjoy the opportunity to get up and just move to the music,” Brunner said. “It doesn’t take very much to get them to embrace basic ballet moves.”

Above the Clouds has expanded its outreach to the whole family. Parents, siblings, and other family members are invited to attend performances of The Nutcracker and Peter Pan to share the arts experience.

In 2010, the group took a leap into the next stage in its growth when they moved in to the rejuvenated Holton Youth Center, which serves the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods just north of downtown. At 25,000 square feet, the Center gives Above the Clouds and three other organizations room for offices and plenty of communal space for dance instruction and other activities. For Linda Wade and Above the Clouds, the Holton Youth Center gives them more than a space to dance; it gives them a sense of place for the young nonprofit.

To help formalize the Holton Center’s unique condominium-style arrangement, the Milwaukee office of IFF, an organization that lends and offers real estate consulting to nonprofits, is using an $8,500 Helen Bader Foundation grant to complete a feasibility study. IFF has started work on a facility plan that will assess space needs, evaluate costs of improving and maintaining the building, and formalize the space-sharing arrangements.

“It’s much more complicated than just taking over the keys and splitting the heating bill,” said Heather Heaviland, IFF’s Milwaukee Community Initiatives Director. “A formal plan will help identify the best use of the space, while also giving them clear parameters for different responsibilities for smooth ongoing operations.”

Since it first opened in 1992, the Holton Youth Center and the surrounding neighborhood have undergone a number of changes. Though it was closed for a time in 2009, community leaders rallied around efforts to reopen it after a rash of street crimes hit the neighborhood. In the summer of 2010, the Center reopened as home to Above the Clouds and other Helen Bader Foundation partners including Running Rebels Community Organization and Wisconsin Community Services.