Deandre Gee had a life-defining choice to make two months ago.
The 30-year-old could have sought revenge for the death of his brother, a shooting victim, or listen to Walnut Way co-founder Sharon Adams, who gave him peaceful, calming guidance over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the kitchen of the organization’s community center, a converted house in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood.
He chose the latter.
"I just want to thank Sharon for being the one that I can speak to, being someone I could trust and being someone I can love," said Gee, relaying the story to community members and civic leaders who attended an event to celebrate Adams and the positive impact she has had on neighborhood residents as director of the Walnut Way Conservation Corporation.
Adams recently announced that she is stepping away from the organization that she founded with her husband Larry in 2000. For the past 15 years, Adams and Walnut Way have helped transform the neighborhood through community organizing, property restoration and economic development.
"We have a lot to do in this country. We have a lot to do in Milwaukee. We can either accept the illusion that we are disconnected and isolated and impoverished, or we can embrace reality that this is an abundant world, a peaceful world," she told the crowd.
"I feel so loved by so many of you and I’m so grateful. I want you to continue to love each other and do good," she added.
Under the guidance of Adams, who grew up in the neighborhood, Walnut Way has spearheaded several residential projects that have created dozens of homes through new construction and the renovation of abandoned houses. One such property is at 2240 N. 17th St. Once a drug house, Walnut Way took it over, renovated it and turned it into the organization’s community center, where the event took place.
"Now it’s serving the community, and it is filled by the people of the community," Adams proudly said as she mingled with attendees, who enjoyed snacks and refreshments as they congratulated her with warm handshakes and hugs.
The organization also has turned vacant lots throughout the neighborhood into thriving gardens and orchards, and helped begin a rejuvenation of the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, highlighted by the creation of the Innovations and Wellness Commons, 1617 W. North Ave., a $2.2 million development that focuses on nutrition and health.
In addition to the dozens of civic engagement, environmental and economic initiatives, Walnut Way has created a long-term quality of life plan to strategically improve the educational, health and safety opportunities in the neighborhood under Adams.
"We need you. We need you. Please don’t leave," Ald. Russell Stamper jokingly said as he presented Adams with a City of Milwaukee proclamation, commending her commitment to the community. "Ms. Adams, I love you. Thank you for loving this community, supporting this community and giving all that you have to this community."
Rigii Njoroge, president of Walnut Way’s board of directors, said Adams’ departure will leave a void that will be filled by the abundance of support the organization receives from community members and city leaders.
"I’m basing my calm on all of this support that we have," he said. "It’s a new chapter and a new way of doing things. It’s exciting."
Adams did not call her departure a retirement, but a transition, saying that she did not know what her next project will be.
"It’s going to be wonderful, whatever it is," she told the crowd. "I learned in coming here that I was responding to a spiritual calling. … I have been called to increase my territory. I don’t know what exactly that means."
O'Brien has a bachelor's degree from DePaul University and a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin Robert La Follette School of Public Affairs, where he focused on social policy such as poverty, employment and housing.
O'Brien has three daughters, who are 5, 7 and 12 years old.