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Longtime East Side advocate comes full circle with School 57 project

The past 20 years have taken Marlies A. Wesolowski a long way.

Or, a couple of blocks.

Wesolowski, once recognizable as a Buffalo School Board member, for the past 15 years has run a center on the city’s East Side, finding ways to feed, clothe and shelter the city’s poor.

Now she wants to transform a closed Buffalo elementary school into a place to further serve the impoverished neighborhood. It would be her biggest project yet.

“I like to build,” said Wesolowski, reflecting on her service in the schools, and also about her present role. “I like to build – as opposed to tear down.”

She can see the closed elementary school on Sears Street from her office window in the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center’s main office on Broadway.

The center hopes to renovate the old school to serve families, offer hot meals, supply food, house people and more.

The ambitious proposal to convert the former Buffalo Public School 57 at 243 Sears St. would cost $12.8 million.

And it would take the next couple of years to finish.

But, to Wesolowski – a native of England whose family came to Buffalo in search of a better life when she was 13 – the move would fit perfectly into her long career in Buffalo, which has expressed itself in simple themes.

Look out for others. Get things done.

Don’t mind the bumps in the road.

Wesolowski spent some nine years on the Buffalo Board of Education, including a stint as board president – and was lauded by The Buffalo News for being a “workaholic for the city schools.”

“She has a vision,” Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz said of Wesolowski. “She has a vision for the future – and it keeps growing,” said Johnice, another provider of services to the poor on the East Side at the Response to Love Center on Kosciuszko Street.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown called Wesolowski, whom he has known for many years, a strong presence in the community.

“She is certainly an extremely passionate, aggressive advocate for the community,” the mayor said.

The Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, an East Side pastor and the head of an Erie County committee on poverty, spoke of Wesolowski’s work by quoting a passage from Margaret Mead, about how it only takes a handful of people to change the world.

“And Marlies is one of that handful of people,” Pointer said.

Struggling neighborhood

At the Matt Urban Center headquarters, a three-floor operation on Broadway at Playter Avenue on the East Side, Wesolowski moves quickly down hallways and between floors, past displays of Polish-American memorabilia – the 1905 building used to be a Dom Polski social and community center – and rooms where services including crime victim assistance and educational classes are provided.

She has an office that is as brightly colored and cheery as her tones when she chats with staff.

On the wall of that office – it used to be a bedroom for the staff of the Polish club – hang woven baskets that commemorate and pay honor to one of Wesolowski’s friends, Alison DesForges.

One of the handcrafted baskets was a gift from DesForges, the human rights activist who died in the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence in February 2009.

The area around the Broadway Market – not far from Matt Urban – is filled with poverty and need.

Over a five-year period, the Central Terminal district had gotten both poorer and smaller – as well as more dependent on food stamps, census data showed.

From 2009 to 2014, the tract lost about 500 people, dropping to just over 2,000 residents, according to estimates from the American Community Survey.

The survey estimates also showed that the proportion of residents living in poverty in the area increased from 39 to 54 percent, while those on food stamps increased from 30 percent to 47 percent.

“It’s a neighborhood that’s really struggling to get back up on its feet,” she said. “It’s been on its knees for a long time.”

From her compact office, Wesolowski has overseen many changes at Matt Urban.

This is not, in fact, the same organization she took over 15 years ago.

The sprawling social services organization – named for a Polish-American hero of World War II who grew up in the neighborhood – now has a reach that extends beyond Broadway and even the East Side, and into the suburbs in Cheektowaga.

Consider the growth:

• In 2001, the Matt Urban Center had 22 employees, according to Wesolowski. Today, it has 85 staff members.

• In 2001, the center operated five buildings. Now, she said, it has 13 separate sites.

• The budget of the Matt Urban Center in 2001 was about $1 million, Wesolowski said. The current budget is $8 million.

• People served annually by the Matt Urban Center’s programs used to be in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 individuals. Now, the organization works with more than 21,000 people a year, she said.

And there are also services offered now that the organization did not offer before Wesolowski’s tenure, like outreach to the homeless.

Brown said the center has offered services ranging from affordable homes to weatherization.

“We have worked with her on all of those things over the years,” the mayor said. “I think her organization is well-managed, and does a very good job,” Brown said.

Placing roots

Wesolowski grew up in England, in a place called Sileby.

In 1970, her family left for the United States. Marlies – her maiden name was Webb – was just turning 13.

“I spent my birthday on the airplane,” she recalled.

Wesolowski said that her family’s move – there were seven in the family – was about making a new life.

“My parents actually came to the United States because they were looking for a better opportunity,” she said.

Her father was a craftsman who made rolls used to create wallpaper. For a time, he worked for the Birge company. Later, her parents moved to Chicago. They have both since died.

But Wesolowski didn’t leave Buffalo. She got married, at 19, a union that has lasted 40 years, to a man who is an electrical engineer. Today Wesolowski’s two adult sons both live in Western New York.

The way she grew up, Wesolowski said, was not fancy.

“We grew up very poor,” she said.

“We lived in public housing. Mum worked two or three jobs, and Dad the same way,” she said.

In Buffalo, Wesolowski attended Grover Cleveland High School – she was jumped ahead a couple of grades in the United States – and then Depew High School, after her family moved to Lancaster. She graduated shortly after she turned 16. Her bachelor’s degree is from the University at Buffalo.

As a mother active in the schools, Wesolowski went to board meetings and paid attention to what was going on in the Buffalo Public Schools. She collaborated with other parents. A Lovejoy resident then, Wesolowski said her run for a School Board seat ended with results that surprised even her.

“I ran – didn’t expect to get elected – but got elected,” Wesolowski said.

Her three terms on the board – around nine years in all – included two years as board president.

“I’m a firm believer in term limits,” Wesolowski said. “The passion you originally had tends to dwindle, or fall off.”

In November 2000, Wesolowski, then 43, decided not to run for a new term on the board.

Wesolowski has a blunt way of putting it.

“Three times was quite enough,” Wesolowski said.

Fighting poverty

Wesolowski joined Matt Urban in 2001 – which means she has spent more time working on the community’s welfare there than she did on the School Board.

The organization, which began in 1976, got started under a different name: the Polish Community Center of Buffalo.

“There was a perception we only served Polish people,” she said.

Now called the Matt Urban Center, it provides assistance to crime victims from its main office on Broadway. The center’s work with the homeless now reaches thousands of people each year. It provides housing.

Wesolowski said the center tries to reach everyone, young and old.

“We basically turn no one away,” she said. “We turn no one away.”

The $12.8 million project proposed for the former Buffalo Public School 57 would be the most expensive yet for the center.

In the past, Matt Urban has spent $5.6 million and $3.6 million on individual projects creating new sites, she said.

In a way, the project would bring her full circle.

The old school – a brick fortress built decades ago – was open when she was on the Board of Education. Moreover, it was in the district she represented.

The School 57 project would include 27 housing units. It also would include a food pantry, an industrial-type kitchen space, and a dining area for the people who live there.

Plans also could include a restaurant for the community’s use, and an area, on Playter Street, to grow produce, she said.

“One of the goals would be to grow enough produce ... they could become vendors at the Broadway Market,” Wesolowski said.

Mayor Brown said the city has awarded the Matt Urban Center the right to use the old school building, as the city’s designated developer for the site, which is owned by the city.

That means the center has an 18-month span to use the building, to the exclusion of others, the mayor said.

The city is “very pleased” about the Matt Urban Center’s proposed use of the property, Brown said.

Heart for East Side

The growth and influence of the Matt Urban Center has a simple explanation, said Sister Johnice, the executive director of the Response to Love Center at the former St. Adalbert’s School.

“Because she has a heart for the East Side – and she’s open to change,” Johnice said.

Pointer, whose Peckham Street church is located within walking distance of the Matt Urban Center, said the center is doing work in a neighborhood that gets forgotten by most.

“Mrs. Wesolowski has done a really good job of diversifying the work that Matt Urban does with some of the poorest people in the city of Buffalo,” the East Side pastor said.

“She has been attentive – and responsive.”

Wesolowski’s style in her work can be seen as personal and caring, Pointer said.

“You’ll discover that she knows everybody by name,” he said. “Her client base – she knows them by name.”

Pointer said Wesolowski’s work on the East Side comes from a place not of difference, but of connection.

“She does not see the things that often people pick out as our differences,” Pointer said. “Marlies doesn’t see those.”

He said that the school project in the old school would be a worthy use of the building, and one he would like to see happen.

The continued growth and expansion of the Matt Urban Center, under Wesolowski, is something that Pointer said might boil down to a few basics.

“Focused leadership and know-how,” he said. “One of the things Marlies has done, she is focused on the things that need to be done – and she’s set about doing them,” Pointer said.