Pat Wongkit has helped raise a community through her work in Madison’s north side

Community learning centers play a critical role for the people who live and work there.
Pat Wongkit
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

I have worked at Northport and Packer Community Learning Centers since they were established in 1995 — and I’ve lived in the Packer Townhouses since 1985. Our business model is designed around the idea that all staff live on-site. I’ve raised three children in the neighborhood that I serve and, in many ways, I have grown up in this community, too. It has been a wonderful experience and also a great challenge. I love living and working here. It has helped me grow into the woman I am today because I know the importance and power of community neighborhood centers.

When I moved to Packer Townhouses, I lacked guidance and resources. I always wished there were more youth and adult programs when I was growing up. The Rev. Dr. Carmen Porco built the Northport Community Learning Center in 1994 and hired me to be a program coordinator in 1995; a year later, Packer Community Learning Center was built. Porco’s vision was to invest in the neighborhood’s residents by bringing in resources to help families, providing tools to be successful, empowering the residents, creating jobs and providing educational and employment opportunities. I know it has empowered me.

Families who live in low-income housing often struggle to make ends meet because they do not have the resources or access to things people in upper or middle classes do. Having community learning centers located in low-income neighborhoods has made a difference in the lives of children, youth and families. The learning centers provide after-school programming and recreation for youth ages 5 to 17, summer camp and enrichment programs, adult education programs such as GED/HSED, English as a Second Language instruction, computer labs for employment and education, Dane County Head Start for children ages 3 to 5, a family literacy program and many other programs and services.

In addition, a scholarship program of up to $1,500 per semester was developed to help our residents who want to pursue higher education or change careers. Through this program, several of our residents have earned degrees in nursing, biology, pharmacy, mechanical engineering, business, geographical information systems, management information systems, criminal justice law enforcement, computer system administration, cosmetology, accounting, education and more.

While working full time at the learning centers, I was able to attend Madison College part time and earned a computer system administration specialist associate degree.

The learning centers have succeeded in providing support and services to our neighborhood residents, and we could not have done it without the support of many partners who believe in our philosophy. Over the years, we have built strong partnerships with the Madison Metropolitan School District, Madison College, University of Wisconsin–Madison, The River Food Pantry, Extended Hands Pantry, Rooted, The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin and other local businesses and nonprofits.

Pat with three students

Pat Wongkit (pictured second from left, with students, from left to right: Jenna Lee, Kao Nou Thao and Malee Thao) often visits kids from Northport and Packer Community Learning Centers at their schools to show support. Courtesy of Pat Wongkit

While we continue to do good work in our community, no one could have foreseen the effects of the pandemic on our community in 2020. COVID-19 caused schools, businesses and many community programs to close. However, our learning centers stayed open and we’ve continued to run our regular programming following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health safety guidelines.

Still, the pandemic brought unique challenges to the neighborhood. Because schools were closed, our learning centers had to assist with virtual learning. With limited staff and space, we helped up to 30 students from all grade levels each day. This challenge was exacerbated by students who have learning disabilities, or for whom English is a second language. Additional stressors include staring at a computer screen all day and constantly being reminded to practice physical distancing, keep their masks on and wash their hands regularly. Despite the risks, we felt it was necessary for us to provide a safe place to assist our young students with their education. Staff played an important role and wore many hats.

To assist our residents with basic health and food needs, we contributed $30,528 toward the FEED to Go program (organized by the Northside Planning Council, FEED Kitchens, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County and Selfless Ambition), which provided our residents 120 meals a day for several months. We teamed up with nonprofits such as Urban Triage, Cook It Forward, The River Food Pantry, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin and Extended Hands Pantry to provide meals, groceries and household essentials for families.

Pat Wongkit sitting in front of school supplies

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Northport and Packer Community Learning Centers are committed to serving children, youth and families. Our mission is “serving people to serve themselves,” and today I am proud to be the program director who oversees both learning centers. I have been blessed to be able to serve our residents and to work alongside many committed co-workers, residents, volunteers and community organizations.

Pat Wongkit is the program director of Northport and Packer Community Learning Centers, which serve more than 400 north-side youth and families. She twice earned a President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama.

Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine