If you look at a list of all that Tamarra Coleman has going on right now, you’d probably wonder how in the world she has enough time in the day.
Because Coleman is just about everywhere when it comes to helping the Kenosha community.
She’s probably best known as the Executive Director of Shalom Center, a position she’s held since 2019. But in addition to that, Coleman is Board Chair for the Kenosha Community Health Center/Pillar Health and a member of the executive board for the Kenosha Area Business Alliance and also serves on the board of the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce, the community board of Advocate Aurora Health and the executive board of Building Our Future.
And that’s just what Coleman is doing right now. From 2012-18, she served as an elected official on the Kenosha Unified School Board, including a four-year tenure as School Board President.
So, how in the world does Coleman find the energy to do all this?
“When you do what you love, it’s not work,” she says. “It’s just living.”
Coleman has won numerous awards and citations for her community-based work over the years. In 2023 so far, she’s been honored with a Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian of the Year Award from Gateway Technical College and a Theodora Youmans Citizenship Award from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs-Wisconsin.
And now, Coleman, who was born and raised in Kenosha and attended public schools here – graduating from Bradford High School in 1993 – has received another honor.
For all she’s done for the community and for spearheading a major addition to Shalom Center that will be a huge benefit to the community – more on that shortly – Tamarra Coleman has been named a Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week.
Learning to serve
There’s a very simple reason for why Coleman learned to serve her community.
She grew up watching her parents do it.
Pastor Gerald and Janice Wilcoxon still live in Pleasant Prairie, and Gerald is still the pastor of a church in Illinois. And they were an example of serving for young Tamarra.
“My parents, I watched them just serve when I was younger,” Coleman said in an interview last week in her office at Shalom Center. “… Just watching them serve. My dad was very involved in the community. He worked at Ocean Spray. My mother worked at Tri-Clover Alfa Laval for 30-something years. All I saw them do was serve and give back.
“So all I knew was serving. I just assumed – and I tell this story often – this is just what you’re supposed to do, is serve and take care of people and help other people. And if you see something that needs to get done, you go over and do it and help. I thought that was normal.”
Growing up in Kenosha, Coleman attended Forest Park Elementary, McKinley Junior High and Bradford. She went into her professional career with a background in project management and embarked into the corporate world, a career she held for 20 years in Illinois, which also included traveling all over the country.
But even though she always remained passionate about helping others and serving her community, Coleman felt like it was hard to do that in the manner she wanted while busy working in the corporate world.
“I just got bored,” Coleman said. “A couple months after I left the corporate world, my husband said, ‘Could you just find a job that you can just go to 8-to-5, and then come home?’ Like nothing extra.
“And I said, ‘Sure.’”
Well, what Coleman found then was far, far better than that. Even though she had never worked with a nonprofit before, Coleman joined Shalom Center in 2016 as Director of Programs and Operations.
Right away, she felt like she was home in her career.
“When I came here, I (realized), ‘I should’ve been doing this for 20 years. I should’ve been at the Shalom Center my entire career,’” Coleman said.
“Shalom Center is absolutely amazing.”
From the get-go, Coleman threw herself full-force into her new job. She also had no background in human or social services at the time, so Coleman – who calls herself a “life learner” – spent her first year-plus at Shalom Center studying and learning as much as she could about the needs of those in our community and how to help them and set them up with valuable services.
“I knew my community, but I wanted to KNOW my community,” Coleman said. “There’s a difference. I wanted to know, what is it that they’re needing, what’s missing, what resources are out there? The good, the bad, the ugly. Show it. I want it all.
“So I did that for about a year-and-a-half, as I was the Director of our Programs and Operations. So when I took this seat (as Executive Director), it was a little easier for me. Because at that point, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m all in.’”
In a similar regard, Coleman had already received a valuable learning experience in how to serve others in the community from her time on the School Board. She was first elected in 2012, while she was still working in the corporate world, and served for six years.
A mother of three daughters, Coleman had plenty of ideas about what she wanted to advocate for and implement when she was elected to the School Board. But as she found out, she also had to work with other board members with a widely varying degree of backgrounds and experiences, and they weren’t all there to just do what they each thought was best, either.
“You have to remember why you’re there,” Coleman said of her time on the School Board. “It’s about the kids. Yes, it’s about the teachers, yes, it’s about the community, but it is really about making sure that our students are successful and ready to learn.
“… You have to remember that everyone is not like your three kids, or the three kids that your kids play with, or the neighborhood kids that you grew up (with). It’s not always like that.”
Coleman’s School Board tenure ended in 2018, but she was about to begin the massively influential role she holds now, as Shalom Center Executive Director.
Adapting, changing, improving
Coleman has many tasks as Shalom Center Executive Director, but when asked what she thinks her most essential role is, she answers quickly.
“Get out of the way,” Coleman said. “Seriously. Get out of the way and empower your team. Support your team, and get out of the way. Go do what you need to do to raise the funds, to continue to advocate. When you create a good leadership team, then you can get out of the way and allow them to run the programs.
“I’m there to guide, support, listen, redirect, pivot, all those strategic things, but really, it’s the team that needs to drive the work. And so, I do, I get out of the way and let them run.”
Founded in 1982 by a group of individuals concerned about problems facing their neighbors throughout the community, Shalom Center has grown into literally a Kenosha institution during its now 41-year tenure.
“I think it’s that ‘pillar,’” Coleman answered when asked to describe exactly what Shalom Center means to Kenosha. “It’s a pillar, but I also look at it as a hub and a connector.
“I feel like we’ve grown up with Kenosha. We’ve had to change, like Kenosha has had to change to meet the different demands of whatever Kenosha became or is becoming. You can’t just stay the same. You have to be willing to take off layers and change as the demand changes.”
Indeed, as they say, change has been the one constant at Shalom Center during Coleman’s time there. In 2017, two years before she became Executive Director, Shalom Center moved into its current location at 4314 39th Ave.
Gradually, with Coleman taking the lead role in 2019, Shalom Center has been able to get all of its valuable services under one roof.
“Here’s what’s interesting: March of 2020 was the first time in the history of Shalom Center that all of our programs were under one roof,” Coleman said. “The first time ever, in our history, all of our programs – shelter, food, everything – under one roof.”
That was made true when, on March 2, 2020, Shalom Center held the ribbon-cutting for its new food pantry. And then, a couple weeks later, everything came to a halt.
Like everyone else, staff at the Shalom Center had to adapt to a totally new reality when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed the world. For a while, Shalom Center could not use the many great volunteers that it relies heavily on to dispense its services, and people coming to the food pantry now had to stay in their cars for a drive-through service.
However, Coleman said, by slowing everything down, the pandemic provided her and her staff a great opportunity to assess everything they did.
“It was really quiet, because it was just staff and just residents,” Coleman said. “… Just us. COVID, for us at the Shalom Center, really allowed us to reflect. It was really a time of internal collaboration amongst each other, because we didn’t have the community coming in.
“It was just us. And we had to step up and work in other departments.”
What Coleman began to discover was that something was missing. It’s not that Shalom Center wasn’t providing great services for those in need or the staff wasn’t working their hardest to help, or anything like that. It’s just that when she assessed what services those in need in the community really required, Coleman started to see a gap.
Coleman literally made phone calls herself, pretending she was someone in need, to see how those really in need connected with valuable resources. And she started to realize that even SHE hadn’t always known about all the services the community has to offer.
“I sat there and I watched people come that used to be our donors,” Coleman said. “I watched people come up in their cars, having no idea where to go. … They only knew about Shalom Center because they donated food here. So they went online and saw that we had a pantry and they could come. In tears.
“And I’m talking car after car after car. And I (would) be like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do people not know the services in the community?’ And then I reflected on my own personal life: ‘Did I know about the services in the community back in the day?’ I came to the Shalom Center, like, ‘You do all THIS?’ And I lived here all my life. And I was like, ‘You guys have a food pantry?’ So here I am, questioning them. … (But) I was the same person.”
And in the old tradition of the “Teach a man to fish …” parable, Coleman felt she wanted to do more than just put food in the cars of those who drove to the pantry to pick it up during COVID.
“I did not want it to just be a food pantry,” Coleman said. “It needed to be a resource center that just happened to give food. … I didn’t like, ‘You pull up, pop your trunk, I give you food.’
“I wanted it to be, ‘I saw that you have a carseat in the backseat of your car. Are you signed up for WIC (nutrition program for women, infants and children)?’ I wanted it to be, ‘Do you know about FSET (FoodShare Employment and Training)?’ I wanted you to be connected to other resources, not just, ‘Pop your trunk, put your food in your car.’”
Additionally, over the years, Coleman said that mental health challenges have become an increasingly more significant component in assisting the needy in the community. Shalom Center does its best to meet these challenges, but the staff isn’t always equipped to handle it.
“Now, I’m an 82-bed facility,” Coleman said. “… I would say, easily, 80 of those people have (a mental health challenge). … We have now become the mental health hospital, per se. So we’re having people that are coming here that are needing mental and medical assistance.
“… There are certain things we can and can’t do. Our staff are not medical providers. And we’re communal living. So you have to be able to get up and take care of yourself. You can use your walker, you can use your wheelchair, but you have to be able to shower yourself. Because we’re communal living. … My staff can’t pick you up and wash you. That’s not what we do. We’re seeing those kinds of individuals. We’re seeing very high on the spectrum of mental illness.”
So, with all of these challenges in mind, Coleman was inspired to add on some type of community service center at Shalom Center.
The result is the “Hope Hub.”
Opening the ‘Hope Hub’
During her first week as Shalom Center Executive Director, Coleman was approached by an anonymous donor – a great contributor to Shalom Center over the years – about what she would do to Shalom Center if she was given a million dollars.
“I said, ‘Well, here’s what I’ve been experiencing for the last two years: We need a resource center,’” Coleman said. “We need somewhere that’s a connector where you can walk in and say, ‘I need help.’ ‘What is it that you need?’ ‘I need food, I’m homeless, I’ve been living in my car for two weeks. I need a shower. I haven’t had a shower in two weeks.’ ‘Great, put your stuff in the bin. Go take a shower, and we’ll get you some food. And then a case manager will be there when you come out.’
“‘ … What is it that you’re needing? Is it rental assistance, do you need a place to live? Great, let’s go over here and talk to our housing navigator, or our housing case manager.’”
So, with Bane-Nelson – which is literally right in Shalom Center’s backyard – on board as the contractor, Shalom Center began the process of constructing a resource center. But as the planning started, the anonymous donor wondered why there wasn’t more.
“We were only building one piece, and then the donor came back and said, ‘Why aren’t you going all the way down?’” Coleman said. “I said, ‘I only have money to go right here.’ He goes, ‘Oh, well, go find out how much it costs to go all the way around.’
“So Brian Nelson (of) Bane-Nelson … came back and said, ‘Here’s how much it’s going to cost us: $2.4 million.’”
So, the anonymous donation for the new resource center turned out to be $2.4 million, and ground was broken on Jan. 6. Coleman said a community vote came up with the name for the resource center, the “Hope Hub,” which should be opening in late October or early November.
While the $2.4 million donation funded the entire cost of construction for the “Hope Hub,” Coleman still needed to come up with funds to operate it. So she wrote a Department of Health Services grant, of which Shalom Center was one of seven agencies across Wisconsin to receive.
The grant will cover the cost of two positions, a housing manager and housing case manager, at the “Hope Hub” for three years.
When it’s fully operational, Coleman says the “Hop Hub” will function just as its name implies, as a hub for those in need in the community to connect with valuable resources. It will also include heating and cooling shelters for relief during inclement weather, washers and dryers, food and showers and will assist with services like telepsych health, bus tokens and rental assistance.
It will also get Shalom Center to connect even more with other community resources. It’s always done that, but now Shalom Center can help people who may just be walking in off the street. Previously, Shalom Center had to focus most of its resources on those living in its shelter.
“Our ‘Hope Hub’ Community Center is all community-facing,” Coleman said. “So that’s new for us. … For the first time, again, we are now going to be servicing community members who don’t live here. So it’s really different for us.
“… This is just opening us up to a whole new world, really, because it’s different. So we’re so excited. It’s exciting, because we’re going to really be able to serve in a different way, and we’re going to be able to serve more people.”
Loving her community
With all that Coleman does with her community work, she still finds time for family and fun.
She and her husband, Michael, have been married for 28 years, and they have three adult daughters, Kyasia, Khaila and Kierra.
“I have a wonderful husband,” Tamarra said. “My husband is absolutely amazing. … I’m different. I know I’m crazy. He allows me to be me, I’ll say it like that. And I’m busy. And I know that sometimes he’s probably like, ‘Seriously, you’re doing what now?’
“… He allows me just to be me, and I like that. He doesn’t hinder me from my crazy personality.”
And Tamarra and Michael now have one granddaughter, 2-year-old Milani, the first child of Kyasia and her husband, Jhalin.
“She’s my heart!” Tamarra says of Milani.
Coleman says each of her three daughters have different personalities. Kyasia words for KUSD, Khaila lives in New York and is currently performing on Broadway and Kierra graduated from Carthage College last year and is now going to law school.
Khaila, in fact, just started performing on Broadway in her role as Catherine of Aragon in “SIX: The Musical.” (Khaila was previously named a Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week. Read that story HERE.)
Tamarra and Michael just took a quick trip to New York in mid-August to see Khaila’s opening on Broadway with “SIX: The Musical.”
“We have never missed her opening or close in a show,” Tamarra said. “ … So we flew out there for a quick weekend and got to see her perform.”
As far as what they love to do around Kenosha, Tamarra said she and Michael love Italian food and the lakefront, so they’re obviously living in a perfect location. And, like most Kenoshans, they love being between two major cities.
Obviously, as Coleman notes, Kenosha isn’t perfect. Like any city, it has its challenges and issues to work on. But that’s why Tamarra Coleman isn’t leaving. She wants to serve her community in any way she can, and she certainly doesn’t lack anything in her considerable efforts to do just that.
“I love my community,” Coleman said. “I want to serve my community, I want to help my community.
“We’re not perfect, (but) I don’t want to walk away. I could easily move. My husband and I could easily pack up and move south. But why? Because I want to make it better. And I care.”