A fresh start: Local organization helps bridge achievement and skills gaps

Since its founding 45 years ago, Operation Fresh Start has provided more than 230 housing units to low-income families, contributed to the restoration and stewardship of local parks and other lands, and served 7,000 at-risk youth in Dane County.

In the process, it’s helped bridge a stubborn racial disparity and achievement gap that’s only recently come on the radar of many Madisonians.

Now this Madison-based nonprofit that’s given a leg up to so many vulnerable 16- to 24-year-old area youths is looking for a helping hand of its own.

“Studies have shown that high school dropouts will cost the community over $250,000 over their lifetime. So we help these young people go forward on a positive path for them, but it also creates such a positive impact for the community.” — Greg Markle, executive director, Operation Fresh Start

The organization has outgrown its current space, and it’s looking to expand through an upcoming fundraising campaign that will help defray the cost of either building a new facility or revitalizing its existing building.

While OFS currently serves about 250 young people, according to Executive Director Greg Markle, the organization could help twice as many with a new facility. That’s important considering that, by OFS’s estimation, there are 3,000 disconnected youth in Dane County, the vast majority of whom are people of color, and 80% of OFS participants have completed the program over the past five years, while more than 70% have succeeded in postsecondary education or employment.

“Our biggest challenge right now is space,” said Markle. “We’re in a building that doesn’t provide us an opportunity to grow to meet the needs. … And there’s no other organization that typically works with this population of 16- to 24-year-olds in the community. So there’s the need, there’s the interest in expanding programming, but in our current space we just can’t do it.”

Fortunately, with help from the business community and other Greater Madison residents, OFS’s grander plans may soon come to fruition.

The organization was recently selected as the beneficiary of the 9th Annual Merrill Lynch Grand Gala, which will be held May 1 at the Gordon Dining and Event Center. The gala, which has raised more than $3 million for local nonprofits since it was established in 2007, will help OFS kick off its Building Futures campaign, and Markle is hoping it can act as the catalyst for a successful fundraising push.

“This is the beginning of a capital campaign for us, and a wonderful way to start it off with a bang,” said Markle.

Building confidence

OFS serves youth in two different programs. One is PATHWAYS, which helps teenagers and young adults who are working toward their high school diplomas, learning job skills, charting career goals, and working on conservation crews or helping to build homes. The other is OPTIONS, which assists youth who are not on track to finish high school.

“We have that great outcome of more affordable housing units, but during the process, 10 to 20 young people are changing their lives and moving forward also, so it’s sort of a dual positive outcome for the organization and the community,” said Markle.

But according to Markle, simply citing the number of homes the organization has built and the number of youth it’s served hardly tells the whole story. The real story, he says, is written on those kids’ faces.

“The changes are amazing, as far as the things we can measure — getting a job, getting a high school diploma,” said Markle. “But other things, it’s just that interpersonal interaction with the young person. When they started with the program they were scared, they were unsure of their place, they wouldn’t engage in eye contact, they wouldn’t talk directly to you. As they’re leaving, they’re proud, they’re sure that they have a place in this world, and they’re ready to go out and accomplish what they want to.”

More importantly, said Markle, they feel like they’re a part of the community, not apart from it.



“It’s a total transformation with so many of these young people. They come to it not feeling that they have a role or an opportunity to be successful, and then by working hard and seeing the fruits of their labor, they can be successful. And being able to give something to the community, they feel like they have a positive role and a positive interaction with the community.”

While Markle notes that only about 20% to 30% of OFS graduates go into construction trades, the experience they’re accruing is nevertheless helping to bridge the skills gap.

“The future hands-on workforce for Madison is to a large degree coming through Operation Fresh Start,” said Markle. “So we have a choice of either preparing the workforce for success or, the negative side is, studies have shown that high school dropouts will cost the community over $250,000 over their lifetime. So we help these young people go forward on a positive path for them, but it also creates such a positive impact for the community.”

In fact, through the upcoming capital campaign and expansion, program participants will have a chance to give back not just to the community but Operation Fresh Start as well.

“One neat thing about it is, the young people in the program are going to help build the new home for Operation Fresh Start, which is really exciting,” said Markle. “I don’t think there’s ever been a capital endeavor in this community where it was so tightly tied with programming — and successful programming in this instance.”

For more information on Operation Fresh Start, click here. To learn more about the Merrill Lynch Grand Gala, click here.