AARP: Two Milwaukee projects win Small Dollar, Big Impact grants

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – Two separate community improvement proposals – one to create a mural art project and the other to create a vital fresh-food access point and neighborhood gathering space – have been selected to receive “Small Dollar, Big Impact” grants from AARP Wisconsin.

These grants are being awarded monthly in 2020 to projects in communities across Wisconsin that are designed to improve communities and make them better places for everyone to live, work and play as they age. Judges selected these projects to receive $1,000 grants after receiving dozens of proposals from various organizations. The projects must be completed within 60 days.

One project will help the Vliet Street Oasis. Vliet Street, in Milwaukee’s Near West Side, has been transformed by local businesses and residents of the Martin Drive, Cold Spring Park, and Washington Park neighborhoods. The Vliet Street Oasis will bring life to a vacant lot and serve as a vital fresh-food access point and community gathering space, supporting neighborhood farmers and area restaurants.

The judging panel was impressed that this project creates important outdoor spaces during the pandemic and brings food access to an area that can be considered a food desert. The grant dollars will help the group continue improving a project that helps several segments of their community.

“We are thrilled to accept this grant from AARP to further the progress made by local businesses and neighbors this summer at the Vliet Street Oasis,” said Keith Stanley, Executive Director of the Near West Side Partners (NWSP), which submitted the grant proposal. “This welcoming gathering place beautifies the neighborhood, serves local restaurants adapting to COVID-19 protocols, and provides a location for local farmers to sell their goods. In addition, the urban produce stand provides convenient access to fresh, seasonal foods throughout the week to Near West Side neighbors and visitors.”

The other project, proposed by the Havenwoods Economic Development Corporation, is for the Villard District Mural Project, which calls for installing five murals in the neighborhood this summer in an effort to celebrate and uplift the community, while showcasing local Milwaukee artists.

The judging panel liked this plan because it integrates environmental messages into the murals, while brightening the area and creating positive feelings. The group will be actively engaged in the community, creating something they can be proud of, giving work to local artists and encouraging others to sponsor their work, the judges said.

“We believe that art brings people together in a way that hardly any other kind of initiative can quite achieve, and we wish to restore neighborhood and community pride by beautifying our streets with original works of art that will delight passers-by and encourage conversations,” said Angelique L. Sharpe of Havenwoods.

Sharpe said she was thankful for the grant, telling AARP, “Your investment in our public mural project will go a long way in building community pride, educating our children, and supporting local artists.”

The Vliet Street Oasis was developed by a cross-generational group of residents and businesses who make up the neighborhood organizing committee and is supported by the local Business Improvement District and NWSP. The purpose of this project is threefold.

First, the oasis will support restaurants impacted by COVID-19 by providing ample outdoor space for visitors to enjoy take-out dinners. Second, it will provide a permanent home for local farmers to sell produce year-round at a dedicated produce stand and seasonally at the Near West Side Farmers Market. It will serve as a fresh food destination for residents in an area with limited access to grocers. Third, this project will serve as a vital gathering place for residents while improving the look and feel of Vliet Street.

The goal of the Villard District Mural Project is to revitalize the community, engage citizens, invite tourism, and promote community pride. One of the murals will be devoted to an ecologically-themed interactive public art piece that will beautify the area and educate the public about environmental degradation.

“This project is unique because it is the first, and largest public art project on the far west side of Milwaukee…It will also be home to one of the few interactive murals in the city of Milwaukee,” Sharpe said in her grant application.

Both projects fit perfectly with the spirit and intent of the grant program, said AARP Wisconsin State Director Sam Wilson. “Our goal is to support communities as they make positive changes that inspire long-term progress on livable issues. These projects hit that nail right on the head.”

“These grants are exactly what the name describes – short-term, low-cost solutions that could have remarkable impacts on the shaping of neighborhoods and cities,” said Darrin Wasniewski, Associate State Director of Community Outreach for AARP Wisconsin. “There are so many great ideas and proposals for making life better in communities across Wisconsin. We know how impactful $1,000 can be. This is our way of extending some seed money to get these projects off the ground.”

Other communities that have been awarded grants so far this year include

Osceola, Platteville, Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Beaver Dam. Future grant applications will be due by Sept. 21 and Oct. 19.

The grant program is open to some nonprofits and government entities. Other organizations will be considered on a case-by-case basis. A full listing of requirements and expectations, as well as a link to apply for the grants, can be found at