Luther Williams III, 44, of Racine, felt terrible when the Thelma Orr COP House, 1146 Villa St. burned down during a riot on June 2.

Four people stand accused of arson. But they were unaware of how much the COP House meant to the community, said Racine Police Chief Art Howell.

Things were rough on Villa Street before the COP House stabilized the neighborhood. Robberies, violence, and drugs were prevalent, but things changed. The children got free meals. They played in the backyard on the playground equipment. Sometimes a police officer would stop and play a game with them, Williams said.

So after the fire, a group of men decided a neighborhood cookout was in order. And about 100 children and 50 adults showed up Tuesday night for a free meal. They got to play in the yard and talk.

“We wanted to feed the kids because they were used to coming over here and playing at the playground in the back of the COP House,” he said. “So we just wanted to try to give them a little support and try to, you know, just put a smile on their face to let them know everything is going to be OK.”


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Rebuilding the Villa Street family after the COP House fire

The neighbors also saw the COP House as a haven. It was like a family there.

The irony: Williams and those other men used the COP House to check in with their parole officer. Those men have since then been discharged from extended supervision. For them, what they are doing is just as much as about feeding people as it is about maintaining stability in the neighborhood.

“We want to let the kids know that there is more to life than just doing what they see other people doing,” he said. “It’s about trying to make better decisions.”

Cookouts to continue

Williams and the group want to do more cookouts.

“We want to try to make this happen regularly, or at least until we can get some stability back at this COP House,” he said.

Howell said the department is planning to start a fundraiser to increase programming there. That’s what the Thelma Orr COP House aimed to do: help put neighborhoods back together.

In a commentary Howell wrote last week, he noted that people were looking to help:

“For those who yet wonder where we go from here, the time to act is now. In the spirit of Dr. Thelma Orr, we can all participate. Whether your actions are large or small, we must each do something productive, do something authentic, and do something quickly and, most notably, do something together.”

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.