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Creciendo Juntos

Growing Together

Through 50 years of creciendo juntos, the United Community Center developed from a small youth program to a successful organization serving Hispanic and near south side Milwaukeeans of all ages through education, recreation, cultural arts, community development, and health and human services. Learn how the UCC and the community grew together with our interactive timeline of our 50-year history:
Click on each heading for more information.

  • 1920-1950

    In the 1920s, many Mexicans emigrated from Texas to Milwaukee for the city’s booming industrial economy and better-paying factory jobs. During World War II, factory jobs became even more abundant when the government called for many factories to be converted into arms and ammunition producers. Factory workers were the backbone of Milwaukee’s economy for decades.

  • 1950-1960

    As Milwaukee's Latino population grew, the community expressed concern about a lack of opportunities for youth. Public schools were unprepared to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking children. The city did not provide enough social services for the South Side community, and hardworking families did not have enough time to spend with their children. As a result, some teens joined street gangs, and participated in petty crimes. The drug trade became a problem in the community as well.

  • Early 1960s

    Recognizing the needs of South Side youth, the Milwaukee Christian Center (MCC) stepped up to help. The Baptist organization, founded in 1921, was dedicated to helping children. Under the leadership of director Rev. Ken Smith, with help from Rev. Gil Marrero, and with funding from the United Community Services Fund (now United Way), the MCC founded their Hard To Reach program. The program identified teens at risk of delinquency and connected them with support services.

  • 1966

    The Hard To Reach program found a new home in an abandoned tavern at 814 South 6th Street. The Women's Club of Wisconsin, a strong supporter of the program, paid the rent. The location, known as “The Spot,” became an important part of the local Latino community and was the birthplace of the United Community Center.

  • 1966-1970

    Open five nights a week, The Spot featured many programs and activities to keep teens engaged. The programs included a car repair club, physical fitness program, coffeehouse, beauty shop, TV repair shop, and boxing gym. Friday afternoon activities included dancing and roller skating in the community.

  • 1967

    After Marrero left The Spot for a new opportunity, Emilio Vélez took over his role as the director. Vélez came in with a broader vision for the organization. He pictured The Spot not only as a recreation center, but as a community service agency. Community members often contacted The Spot with questions and requests for assistance and referrals.

  • 1968

    The Spot received a $122,900 grant from the Wisconsin's Board of Governmental Operations to add more programs and staff. Using the funds, the center expanded into a former drug store at 806 S. 6th Street and increased staff to ten. The newly renamed "United Spot" also featured additional activities for youth, programs for the elderly, and more community services.

  • 1969

    The Famous Puerto Rican wrestler, César Pabón, was hired by Vélez as a youth worker and subsequently as Program Director. Pabón would serve the organization in many important facets in the years to come.

  • 1969

    The state did not renew its generous grant which helped the United Spot grow and function. United Community Services, now known as United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha, stepped up to help with a grant that would allow the organization to operate through 1970.

  • 1970

    At the time, the United Spot was operated by United Way and their staff, as well as the Residents Advisory Council, while the MCC provided funding and governance. Meanwhile, local residents wanted more input and leadership with the United Spot, which they felt was important in the community. The MCC was reluctant at first to let their successful project go, but they eventually agreed to allow the Residents Advisory Council to take leadership of the center. The Board formed a Transition Committee to oversee the change.

  • 1970

    The United Spot burned down in 1970 and the center made the best of a tough situation. UCC board member, Ted Friedlander, recruited Michael Stirdivant from the YMCA to help find the United Spot a new home. The center moved temporarily to Ace Gym on S. 5th and E. Mineral Avenue.

  • 1970

    In addition to the fire, the newly independent center faced many challenges early on. César Pabón was acting director until a permanent director could be found. The center initially had cultural conflicts between Mexican American and Puerto Rican members. Despite all these challenges, the center persevered.

  • 1970

    At the end of 1970, the United Spot officially became the United Community Center (UCC) with its own board of directors. United Community Services provided transition funding while Rev. Jaime Dávila served as the first board president.

  • 1971

    UCC offered Michael Stirdivant directorship. Although not Latino himself, he was passionate about the center.

  • 1972

    UCC purchased their current building on 9th Street from St. John the Evangelist Church, which marked a new beginning for the organization. The building was in a rough condition when it was bought, but the space it provided was worth the effort and money needed to make repairs. Faced with few resources and a new, empty building, the organization moving forward focused on expanding upon their new home and renovating the space to fit their needs.

  • 1975-1979

    UCC expanded their athletics program, utilizing the gym in their new facility to foster the growth of teams and individuals. UCC also hosted local and state events, such as a statewide powerlifting championship. On top of powerlifting, UCC had programs for other sports, most notably boxing. Boxer Israel "Shorty" Acosta, a talented athlete that began boxing at UCC, would go on to represent the United States in the Olympics, ultimately becoming a boxing coach for UCC.

  • 1979

    UCC also created their Drug Abuse Prevention program, which saw widespread success due to the trust shared between the organization and individuals in the community. Because of this success, Milwaukee County reached out to the Board of Directors and discussed the creation of a Drug Abuse Treatment program, ultimately creating the New Beginnings Clinic on 12th Street.

  • 1979

    UCC created two additional programs targeted towards community organizations and individuals. First, the "Training and Technical Assistance Program" was offered to other community organizations which were similar to UCC, offering training for management in an effort to boost the effectiveness of these organizations. Second, the "Resident Mobilization/Hispanic Development Program", offered services to individuals in the community to remedy socio-economic problems.

  • 1980

    To accommodate the increasing membership as a result of UCC's new services, the board of directors looked to expand the space available on campus. Following an incredibly successful fundraising program, the construction of UCC's first major addition began. The expansion included a new gym, community spaces, and a small library that would cycle through books from the Milwaukee Public Library. The new space also housed areas dedicated to new smaller programs, such as youth employment, delinquency prevention, and gang intervention programs.

  • 1983

    Created as a program to give unemployed youth work experience, the restaurant, Café El Sol, was built to create and serve culturally significant foods, as well as showcase music and other forms of art to the community. Café el Sol is well known for their Friday-Fish Fry Buffet as well as a hub for local nonprofits and area businesses to host meetings.

  • 1984

    Ricardo Diaz, a well known and respected visionary, became the director in November of 1984. His dedication and vision of growth included expanding the center’s original mission of quality recreation programs. Diaz helped the center gain a positive financial footing and reputation across the city.

  • 1985

    In the early 1980s, current Associate Executive Director of UCC Laura Gutiérrez (second from right) began visiting the center as a child. Her history with the organization would grow from there as she began working with the drug prevention programs as a teenager. Coming back as adult, Laura became the Assistant Principal and Director of Instruction. After some time away from the organization, she returned “home” in 2019 to the position of Executive Director to succeed Ricardo Diaz upon his 2020 retirement.

  • 1985

    UCC created an arts organization originally named The Friends of the Hispanic Community, though the name would later be changed to Latino Arts, Inc. The new program's goal was to explore the cultural heritage of Latinos in the community through all forms of art and to express these cultural artworks to the Greater Milwaukee community.

  • 1986

    As membership continued to grow rapidly, another fundraising effort once again saw immense success, leading to the second major addition to UCC campus. The second major addition included a newer gym space and the expansion of the library and other educational spaces. The old gym space was renovated into a theater. The expansion would nearly double the physical size of the United Community Center, a much needed addition as membership soared.

  • 1988

    In 1988, one of the first major education programs, the Children At Risk program, was introduced at UCC. The program targeted youth who were at risk of falling short of requirements to advance to the next grade level and help them bridge any gaps that existed. The program helped students who did not speak English as their first language learn in an environment that is more suited to meet their needs, allowing them to succeed and advance in grade level. The program had a 92% attendance rate, largely due to the trust between the center and the community it serves.

  • 1989

    In 1989, having completed his goals for the center, Diaz left UCC and was succeeded by Walter Sava. With the organization in a steady position financially and with a strong reputation, Sava took the opportunity to invest in new areas, such as education and cultural arts.

  • 1990

    UCC expanded and merged with the Centro del Niño and Bruce-Guadalupe Community School (BGCS) to expand into the realm of K-8 education. The merger with Bruce-Guadalupe was significant as the school had a history in Milwaukee since the late 1800’s, starting as Holy Trinity School. (Pictured are Holy Trinity students in 1956.) In 1993, BGCS had 300 students and in 2019 the school served more than 1700 total students.

  • 1995

    UCC Board launched $3.5 Million campaign to add more classrooms and educational space to the campus. Additionally, Walter Sava hired artist Robert Cisneros to paint murals on campus. These murals still adorn the building and share the history, struggles, culture and success of Hispanics in the community.

  • 1996

    UCC expanded their facilities a fourth time and renovated the building that now contains Café el Sol, Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, and senior programming.

  • 1996

    In 1996, UCC collaborated with an existing senior care organization, La Guadalupana, and began operating an adult day care program for Latino elders within the community. A few board members from La Guadalupana joined UCC’s board as a result of the collaboration and then the senior center was moved onto UCC’s campus.

  • 2000

    UCC expanded their senior services with the construction of US Bank Village, a 20 unit elderly apartment complex. A transportation program also began to help seniors travel to and from the center.

  • 2001

    With continued growth, UCC built a new school to house the upper grades of Bruce-Guadalupe Community School. This new middle school was built with state-of-the-art science labs, while the school began to integrate a pre-engineering curriculum called Project Lead the Way.

  • 2002

    The Latino Arts Strings Program was launched to provide pre-college, professional music training for Latino students. The program blends classical music education with Latin American folk music to train around 200 young musicians between the ages of 5-18.

  • 2003

    Ricardo Diaz returned to the UCC in 2003 as the center's Executive Director.

  • 2004

    In 2004, renovations were made to the lobby of UCC featuring a Hispanic Heritage Center celebrating the history of Latinos in the Milwaukee area. Renovations also included the conversion of the auditorium into the Latino Arts, Inc. Auditorium and Gallery. These events were important in celebrating the abundant Hispanic heritage in the South Side, as well as expanding the outreach of UCC to the community.

  • 2007

    Several additions were made to the elderly and youth services; these additions expanded an adult day care facility and an early childhood education program. Later, this early childhood education program would become the K-3 program at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School. The expansion of the UCC youth programs continued to engage students and impact their educational journey from a young age.

  • 2010

    Olga Village senior housing community officially opened in partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). The program provides housing to seniors and allows them to maintain their independence while offering support services at the UCC Senior Center on site.

  • 2013

    The Building on Success Campaign was launched to raise funds for 18 new classrooms that would serve 600 additional Bruce-Guadalupe Community School students.

  • 2015

    The United Community Center was recognized for its substance abuse recovery program with a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The funding would allow UCC to expand and improve this program, which was the only bilingual substance use disorder (SUD) treatment program in Wisconsin at the time. The treatment site was also the only site that served as a Central Intake Unit for Milwaukee County's public sector substance use delivery system. Eventually, this program would become UCC Human Services and would expand to include three residential treatment homes, two for women and one for men in the community. UCC Human Services now serves almost 700 clients annually with three residential treatment facilities, day treatment and outpatient programs.

  • 2018

    Acosta Middle School, named after longtime Dean of Students Dora \nAcosta and boxing coach Israel “Shorty” Acosta, was launched to focus on technology and skilled trades. The school offers a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curriculum to middle school students and helps prepare them for a future in a dynamic job market.

  • Future

    The Bright Futures Campaign was launched to build the new UCC Early Learning Academy that will serve the youngest learners from newborns to 3-year-olds, ensuring they are kindergarten ready. At this time, 60% of Hispanic children in Wisconsin do not have access to pre-k education. The program, located in the densely populated 53215 zip code, has outstanding potential to improve the \nfuture for children and families of the community.