Jefferson Awards: On A Mission To Improve San Francisco’s Tenderloin

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – Have you visited San Francisco’s Tenderloin district recently? There have been a few changes there over the last 30 years, many of which wouldn’t have happened without this week’s Jefferson Award winner. The area has a reputation for drugs and crime, but it’s also home to more than 3,500 children.

Midge Wilson had just finished graduate school when she first moved there 30 years ago.

“There were so few services then,” she remembered. “I saw kids starting to move in and there was nothing.”

Wilson got a grant to start the Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center, a non-profit that she continues to run today out of a small storefront on Leavenworth Street.

“The mission was two things: direct services and advocacy and policy work for women and for families with young children,” Wilson explained. “The first thing they asked for was clothing and household items.”

So she set up a clothes closet and food pantry so they could “make a successful next step.”

Wilson’s own next step was to change the face of the neighborhood. Forging new partnerships, she and the Center built five playgrounds, the neighborhood’s first community recreation center, and an elementary school.

“We needed it more than anything we ever worked on,” Wilson said of the school. “We had little kids waiting on Market Street because they had to go somewhere else, because their parents had to go to work.”

The Tenderloin Community School has become a unique model of what public and private partnerships can do. The Center helps run the school’s library program, and provides 16 after school clubs. And thanks to a collaboration Wilson arranged with UCSF’s dentistry division, the school even maintains the smiles on student’s faces.

“We do full coverage dentistry,” said Registered Dental Assistant LaDonna Miles. “I don’t believe there is any other school in the state of California that has a dental setting.”

Substantial change in a community takes passion and patience, just ask Nancy Ong, who started working for Wilson and the Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center when she was in High School.

“She’s a great teacher,” Ong said. “She has a lot of patience, she has a lot of ideas, and she goes for it!.”

Wilson added, “All of us are in it for the long run, and we don’t mind taking years to get the right thing done, if that’s how long it takes.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )

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