Geography student’s summer internship makes an impact at Revitalize Milwaukee

The adult son needed a wheelchair to get around after a surgery left him unable to walk on his own. He moved in with his mother so that she could assist with his day-today care. But their Milwaukee home had a series of steps leading up to the front door.

“Every time the son needed to leave the home, his mother had to collapse the wheelchair, bring it down the stairs, open the wheelchair back up, and then support her son down the stairs and back into the wheelchair,” Rixmann said. “Coming home, the same thing again. They did this every single time the son needed to leave the home.”

So, she and coworkers decided to do something about it.

Rixmann is a summer intern at Revitalize Milwaukee , a nonprofit that helps low-income seniors, veterans, and disabled people in the city make crucial repairs to their homes. Rixmann encountered the organization while she was researching a project for one of her geography classes – she is double-majoring in geography and German – and was so taken with their mission that she asked the CEO if she could sign on as an intern over the summer.

“I was very clear – I don’t have any construction or building experience, so I can’t help with that,” she laughed. Instead, Rixmann has worked in the company’s headquarters, assisting with marketing, fundraising, outreach and education. She answers phone calls from home owners in distress and helps them to file applications and paperwork, as well as conducts site visits to determine what renovations might be needed.

That is a crucial part of the program, because “a lot people have been living in their situations for years and they don’t realize it’s unsafe or unhealthy,” Rixmann said. “We had people living for a number of years without electricity, and they’ve just gotten used to that. They’ll call us about a broken stair, but not the fact that they don’t have electricity.”

On the home visits, she said, she gets to interview the potential clients and learn about them and their families. Developing that rapport helps people gain trust in the organization and helps Revitalize Milwaukee understand what repairs the home might need.

“A lot of these homeowners, all they have is Social Security. They still have to buy food and pay utility bills,” Rixmann noted. “Almost every month, they’re facing a choice of, do I buy my medication this month or do I pay my utility bill or do I skip on my mortgage? And so, they do not have the capacity to save for a $10,000 wheelchair ramp or other repairs.”

Rixmann was drawn to geography, and urban geography specifically, because she was looking for ways to address the local problems she saw around her in Milwaukee. Lack of affordable housing and dangerous conditions like lead paint and lead pipes are issues that affect a number of Milwaukeeans, especially the city’s Black residents.

“You can clearly see on a map based on income or race, there are very clear lines in Milwaukee. There are huge disparities. Redlining really shaped the urban landscaping of Milwaukee,” Rixmann, who is white, explained. “Revitalize Milwaukee tries to bridge those disparities.”

But it’s one thing to learn about redlining and racial covenants in a geography classroom, and another to see their effects on the city’s streets. And it’s a lot different to learn about a problem academically than it is to solve it practically. Rixmann said one of the most valuable things about her internship has been learning to take the concepts that she’s learned at UWM and apply them.

“I realized that you need that business side of it. You need that more realistic, technical side,” Rixmann said. “Last week, we had a ‘Block Build’ where we had to rehab 23 homes in one day. How do we organize that? What coordination do you need, what marketing? I think it’s been awesome to learn those skills.”

And, she added, it’s been rewarding to see how she and Revitalize Milwaukee have helped make a difference in people’s lives – starting with a wheelchair ramp.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science