Q&A with Page Remmers, Executive Director
Q: What is your background? How did you get here?
A. I grew up in the Chicago area – in Roselle, Ill. I went to college at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where I majored in speech and hearing sciences. I earned a master’s in Communication Disorders at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. After graduating I worked as a Speech-Language Pathologist at hospitals and schools. My emphasis was working with children ages 3-6. At that time, I was so glad there were people who wanted to teach middle school because I thought I could never do that. And of course now I have an entire organization built around middle school kids.
Q. So a few things happened between then and now?
A. Yes, a few. In 2000 I went back to school – to UWM – for a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. By then I knew I wanted to do something with art, and with kids.
Q. Have you loved art forever? Is that something you wish you had pursued the first time around at college?
A. It wasn’t a passion. I never did much art when I was younger. As an adult, before I returned to college, I started making quilts. I didn’t like having to follow someone else’s pattern; I wanted to do my own. Basically, I wanted to learn good composition to make a quilt. That was the inspiration behind art school. By the way, I never made another quilt after starting school.
Q. So you pursued art with a limited background and interest?
A. I was interested in it. I don’t mean I wasn’t. I just wasn’t experienced in it. I knew I wanted to do something with kids, and with art because of the creative aspects.
Q. What was it like going back to school as an adult?
A. The students there were much more experienced than I was so it was intimidating at times. One of my favorite sayings is, “Do something that scares you every day.” For the six years I was in art school, I had that covered. The people in the major were half my age and most were really good at art.
Q. How did the classes go?
A. They went great, despite my fears. In fact, a lot of the teachers I hire at WCAP were in class with me at UWM. Being an art student gave me courage, because it’s not an easy major. Unlike my other classes, in art you have to create something from nothing, and have the courage to put it out in front of your peers to be critiqued. I felt challenged in a way I had never been before.
Q. And you were raising your children at this time as well?
A. It was hard, but the fact that my husband, John, worked in town made a huge difference. I tried to be at school while the kids were at school and give them my attention when they got home. A lot of times I started homework at 10 at night. I didn’t sleep very much.
Q. Were you at UWM when you decided to open a non-profit?
A. Yes. I volunteered at an after-school art program in Milwaukee. I saw that it had a tremendous impact on the students, but it only went up to age 12. It really struck me that there was a need for middle school students also. At that time my kids were that age, too, so maybe I was watching that group a little more closely. It just seemed like, “We take care of kids 12 and under, and then they’re on their own.” I was seeing that this was an issue, not just where I volunteered, but in the Waukesha area also.
Q. So you made your mind up then?
A. More or less. I guess after that it was mostly confirmation. I heard a story on “This American Life” about an anthropologist, Shirley Brice Heath, who studied more than 100 after-school programs. She examined three kinds after-school programs: sports, service, and the arts. She found the art programs were the most likely to help at-risk students. That’s when I really thought, “This is want I want to do.”
Q. Then it was full speed ahead?
A. Yes. I ignored the part of Ms. Heath’s research that said the art after-school programs are the programs least likely to get funded – which, by the way, I certainly believe. But in terms of a decision, I knew before school ended that I wanted to do this, and I kept telling everyone, “I'm going to start a non-profit.”
Q. How did you go from concept to reality?
A. Susan Vetrovsky founded WCAP with me. She had been a CPA for years. She helped with all the paperwork needed for a non-profit – and believe me, there is a lot. My husband is a lawyer, so he provided the legal services. Those were two of the biggest challenges – besides space.
Q. You first opened at St. Luke’s, is that correct?
A. Yes. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to start this non-profit, and it made a difference. It helped Susan and I connect. Then, at a church function, I talked to Pastor Gary Liedtke, who asked what we were doing for space. At that time I didn’t have a location secured. He immediately replied, “St. Luke’s Lutheran Church would like to have a conversation with you about this. Let’s find out how we can help.” So talking too much does pay off sometimes.
Q. How did you get kids in the programs?
A. It took some time. We worked with a counselor at Central Middle School, which was just across the street from the church. I had been a long-term Speech-Language Pathologist substitute at a few Waukesha Schools, so she was familiar with my references.
Q. When exactly did you open? Do you remember the first class?
A. Our non-profit exemption was approved in January 2007, and we had our first program in October 2007. The first class was visual arts and in the St. Luke’s basement. Attendance started slow, but we always had someone show up. I think the lowest attendance on a particular day was six.
Q. And you just kept reaching out, trying to find more kids?
A. We did, but we also learned something really important. At the beginning I would always ask the kids who showed up, “Where’s so-and-so? They were here yesterday, or last week. Why aren’t they here today?” I wanted to know why they weren’t coming, of course, but I realized that sent a really bad message to the kids who were there: that they weren’t as important as the other kids. After that, we always told ourselves, “Pay attention to who is there. Help them have a great time. It will grow from there.” And it did. We did more outreach, yes, but ultimately what I think really paid off was the focus on creating a great environment. Happy students were our best resource.
Q. What were other challenges early on?
A. Finding the funding was hard, and it still is. Starting at St. Luke’s was great, because they let us use the space for free. The Women’s and Girls Fund gave us our first grant, and they continue to support us. But it took some time for the grants to come in. While finding the funding was hard, we also saw encouraging signs that made us all the more committed. For example, one day we were walking as a group and we saw a middle school student who was in trouble – he was being arrested. He was with two other kids who innocent bystanders. The WCAP kids knew them and said to them: “You shouldn’t be hanging around with someone like that, you should spend your time at WCAP.” The bystanders did join us, and kept coming back. That situation also taught us, or at least reminded us, that location is important. You have to be near the kids, and hopefully they can walk there. You also have to make it be a place they want to walk to. Middle school kids vote with their feet.
Q. Why did you leave the church? It seems the location was great and the lack of rent ideal.
A. It was a perfect start, and I’ll always be grateful to St. Luke’s. We first considered moving when Berg Management offered us free space downtown for the week WCAP students were organizing a fund-raiser for the Waukesha Food Pantry. Being in that space made us realize how nice it would be to have a downtown location of our own. The idea of being in the Arts District was very appealing. We moved to a new location on Grand Avenue, and stayed there for three years. Then we moved here. This space is just a little better suited for us. Now I think we’re home for a while.
Q. Does it matter that you’re downtown?
A. It does. It matters a lot. We’re part of the Art Crawls and sponsor a Freeman Friday Night Live Stage. It adds energy and opportunities to connect with the community.
Q. What is a typical day and week like around here?
A. We have after-school programs five days a week from 2:45-5 pm. Each medium (visual art, drama, dance and creative writing) have units that last 6-10 weeks. We feel it’s good to have a beginning and an end. The highlight of each unit is a community component.
Q. What are the classes?
A. It started with the visual arts, but we’ve also added creative writing, drama and dance.
Q. How much do the programs cost?
A. They are all free. We want to offer the same opportunities to all the kids.
Q. How do you know if you’re reaching the kids?
A. Attendance is one way – remember, middle schoolers vote with their feet. We have a lot of the same kids come back, which shows they like it here. Retention for middle school students in after-school programs is very difficult, so we are very proud of this. We always have new kids in every class, too, so the word is spreading. We also know we reach them because when they get older, they come back and thank us, and tell us we made a difference. Hearing that is incredible.
Q. What resonates with the kids? Is it a love of art or something else?
A. I’ve heard kids talking, and they’ve filled out some evaluation forms too, and it’s almost like they’ve read our mission statement. They say at WCAP they can be themselves, that they are emotionally supported, that they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. A surprising response from some is how much they enjoy the community connections. Every program ends with “giving back” in some way. As an organization we felt that was important so the community would get to know the kids, and could see what they have to offer the community. We’ve done shows for various organizations, and done artwork for groups too. One of the biggest thrills for a lot of these kids was building a “Free Little Library” and then installing it in the Peace Garden at the Women’s Center. We also filled it with books for the kids who are at The Women’s Center. The WCAP kids just loved that. They still talk about it all the time.
Q. You went into this because middle schoolers had nowhere to go after grade school. What happens to WCAP middle schoolers when they get older?
A. We have a lot of success stories with older kids, too. With a grant form the Women and Girls Fund of Waukesha County we’ve started the WCAP Leadership Council. Cheryl Peterson and Danielle Manhardt are running this program and it’s going very well.
Q. Any parting words?
A. There are a lot of people to thank. I’m not going to name them all or I’ll miss someone, but there are many, many people who made this possible – and continue to make it possible. It’s a dream come true for so many of us!