Wanda Montgomery remembers when her family lived in the Hillside Projects and she has never forgotten her roots, or those people who helped her along the way.
“In 1967, my parents were finally able to move us from the projects. They had strived to do that for a while, but with a family of our size, finding a place with enough room for everyone was challenging,” said Montgomery.
Growing up with seven siblings, plus a ‘bonus’ sister (someone the family never legally adopted, but she became part of the family), it was difficult to find a house with enough rooms to accommodate this large family.
“Finally, my parents found a home on Martin Luther King Drive, next to what was then St. Gall’s Church that was owned by Dr. John Terry. His office was located in the front part of the house, but the back part had a large kitchen, dining room and enough bedrooms and bathrooms to accommodate us. At the time, we had no idea that my mother would one day start a day care in that facility, in the offices once occupied by Dr. Terry,” said Montgomery.
In 1972, Montgomery and her oldest sister graduated from high school (Montgomery had attended summer school and advanced to her older sister’s grade level), her mother announced that she was pregnant. It was during that time that her mother, Mrs. Gray, also decided to start a daycare center in the home.
Montgomery enjoyed living in that home for three years before heading off to college. She graduated from Riverside High School, attended UW-Madison as a freshman, and then completed her Bachelor of Science at UW-Milwaukee. She later attended Marquette University and received a Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy.
When Montgomery married, all three of her children attended Gray’s daycare until they were 12 years old. By that time, the Gray’s Childcare had 14 different locations. It was also during this time that MATC issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for onsite evening childcare for all four of its sites. On behalf of Gray’s Childcare, Montgomery responded to the RFP and the center was selected as the successful daycare provider.
“My mother said, since you wrote the proposal, you will need to come and oversee it. From that point on, I began overseeing every aspect of the program, including the training and looking at ways to improve the quality of Gray’s programs. I also helped my mother become accredited with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and we also consolidated all our programs into one location, on Teutonia Avenue.
In 1998, Montgomery decided to look for other opportunities to advance her career. She left Gray’s to take a position with Neighborhood Housing Services, supporting first-time homebuyers. However, in 1999, Montgomery’s mother decided that she wanted to retire, so the Board of Directors at Gray’s invited Montgomery to return as executive director. Since Montgomery knew the business, she agreed to return and stayed there until 2003, when her mother decided she wanted to come out of retirement.
“I thought that was great for my mom, but I knew that both of us couldn’t lead the same organization, so I offered to find another position. I put some ‘feelers’ out and ended up at Maximus—a W-2 program, working as program manager on their new north side location,” said Montgomery.
Montgomery oversaw that region, with a staff of 300, supporting children and families. She also served on various community-based boards and committees.
“Some board members approached me about a position as the executive director at Children Family and Community Partnerships, which was supported by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. I interviewed and received the position,” she said.
Montgomery held the position for the about three years when, once again, she was approached to help build a team around a special project to increase the number of foster care homes.
“I took on the challenge and within five months we quadrupled the number of foster care homes. Around that time, Children’s Hospital brought in a new Executive Vice President and he told me he wanted me on his team. I’ve been doing the work that I do at Children’s Hospital for seven years now,” said Montgomery.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has the overarching vision of helping the community have the healthiest children in the nation.
“We must ensure that all children, but specifically Black children, have the best education, housing, and support systems. It’s important for me to be in the room and at the table to support our children and, ultimately, support our families,” said Montgomery.
Passionate about her work, Montgomery is also one of the founding members of the Black Child Development Institute-Milwaukee Affiliate (BCDI), a national organization that celebrated its 20-year anniversary last year.
“The work of the BCDI-Milwaukee blends perfectly with the work that I’m doing with children’s hospital. Our goals and visions are the same,” she said.
In addition to her career and serving on numerous boards, somehow Montgomery recently found time to run a successful political campaign. This year, she was elected to the office of Trustee in the Village of Brown Deer.
“I’ve never run for public office, but I’ve helped others campaign, in various capacities. This is my way of continuing to serve my community. I live in Brown Deer, which is right across the street from Milwaukee. Brown Deer has a mentality of being a small village. I see clearly that we’re a community that occupies 4.5 square miles, but we have two major governmental bodies—the school board and the trustee board. We need to work together. Children’s Hospital is already doing programming in Brown Deer and, with my connections, I think I can bring a wealth of resources to our community. We don’t have the resources to save ourselves, but we can learn to play nice with others to bring in those resources and partnerships,” she said.
With such a grueling schedule, Montgomery has learned to make time for work-life balance as she passionately pursues opportunities to help others.
“First, I’m a believer, so before I do anything, I pray about it and talk with my family. I trust that God will give me the things I need so that I can accomplish all that I’m involved in—with excellence. God has connected so many different people to me already. For the past three months (during the campaign), I’ve been running non-stop, but I set aside a weekend each month for myself—to decompress. Secondly, my family keeps me grounded. My husband and I will celebrate our 45thanniversary this year. We do some fun things, but we all need to rest on a regular basis. I also take care of myself. I come home at night and I go to bed at a decent time,” she laughed.
In The Milwaukee Community Journal’s Year of the Child, Milwaukee is grateful for the care, compassion and commitment that Montgomery has for her community, but especially for the quality of life she is determined to provide for children and families. She can rest well at night, knowing that she has given her best to help others. She has, indeed, come a long way from Hillside Projects, and she strives to see others make it out as well.