By Lynn C. Sheka, Senior Director of University Communication, Marquette University

Marquette University faculty and representatives from Milwaukee community organizations pose with Marquette President Dr. Michael R. Lovell after being named winners of the President’s Challenge grant (photo by Marquette University)

Marquette University faculty and representatives from Milwaukee community organizations pose with Marquette President Dr. Michael R. Lovell after being named winners of the President’s Challenge grant (photo by Marquette University)

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home to Marquette University, is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. High poverty rates and stark inequities in access to health care, education and fresh food only contribute toward its historical segregation.

But recently, experts have started to understand how many of the city’s challenges are related to trauma.

“Trauma experienced as a child or adolescent affects children as adults,” said Dr. Stephen Saunders, chair and professor of psychology at Marquette. “Now you have adults who were traumatized as children, who are still affected by their trauma, who are having difficulty adjusting to raising their own kids. It’s [a] sort of vicious cycle.”

Having experienced alcoholism, violence and suicide attempts in his immediate family while growing up, Marquette President, Dr. Michael R. Lovell, knows first-hand how trauma can affect individuals and their surrounding communities. So last year, he and his wife, Amy — the CEO of REDGen, a Milwaukee non-profit focused on building resiliency — founded a region-wide effort to heal trauma. They call it Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee: SWIM, for short.

The effort is gaining nationwide attention from the likes of America and Oprah Winfrey. SWIM now includes representatives from dozens of nonprofits, corporations and community organizations committed to improving mental health resources and ensuring that Milwaukee is one of the most trauma-informed cities in the nation.

In an effort to involve faculty from Marquette, Lovell announced, in January 2018, the President’s Challenge. Developed in partnership with the Johnson Controls Foundation, the President’s Challenge would provide a $250,000, two-year grant for one interdisciplinary, collaborative proposal between Marquette faculty members and community organizations that would address inequities in Milwaukee neighborhoods.

In order to be eligible to obtain the grant, teams had to be made up of at least five people, including at least one Marquette faculty member from each of the following areas: humanities, social sciences and STEM-related disciplines. Teams also had to involve a substantial partnership with a Milwaukee community organization. Proposals needed to focus on an under-served neighborhood and had to address one or more of the critical areas in which neighborhood inequities exist, such as health, education, safety, housing, transportation and economic prosperity.

Teams had until April 2018 to submit their proposals. Lovell said, “More than 37 Marquette faculty members and 40 community organizations worked together throughout the process, which included two community information sessions and two team formation events. All told, eight faculty-community teams submitted final proposals to the judging committee.”

Lovell announced the winning proposal in January 2019 during his annual Presidential Address. The winning program, “Next Step Clinic: A Partnership Targeting Mental and Developmental Health for Milwaukee’s Underserved Children and Families,” will be led by Dr. Amy Van Hecke, associate professor of psychology, along with Marquette colleagues in nursing, education, counseling psychology, computer science, communication, psychology, speech pathology and audiology (click on the video icon at left to learn more).

Van Hecke said, “The Next Step Clinic will seek out and serve Milwaukee families adversely impacted by racial and socioeconomic health disparities, with an additional focus on families who have been affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), trauma or chronic toxic stress and developmental delays.”

The collaboration will also include the Milwaukee Coalition for Children’s Mental Health; Mental Health America of Wisconsin; Milwaukee Area Technical College; MIRACLE Network; Next Door Foundation; True Love Baptist Ministries; and Milwaukee Succeeds Kindergarten Readiness Partnership/United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha Counties.

The Next Door Foundation, located in Milwaukee’s Metcalfe Park neighborhood, will provide available space for the Next Step Clinic to serve Milwaukee children and families struggling with mental health and developmental issues. The clinic will also serve as a training site for graduate students, increasing the number of professionals trained in these areas, and serving children and families for generations to come.

“Where Marquette can bring a unique aspect to this project is [through] students who will be doing this work under the supervision of Marquette faculty. By involving students in this clinic, and having it be a training site, we are training more mental health professionals,” said Van Hecke. “The more mental health professionals we have who are trained and know how to work with these children and families, the easier it will be for people to get the resources they need. The short-term solution is to open the bricks and mortar clinic, and long-term, we will work to address the larger problem that there are not enough professionals trained to provide this type of care.”

Lovell added, “The Next Step Clinic is a truly inter-disciplinary, collaborative idea that will provide a centrally located site for comprehensive, trauma-informed evaluation, assessment and treatment of mental and developmental health conditions of Milwaukee children and their caregivers. Thanks to the generosity of the Johnson Controls Foundation, the Next Step Clinic will help bridge the gap between families and service providers, providing a unique response to the pressing issue of health disparities in our city.”

To learn more about Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM), visit