Gerry Howze – 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards Honoree

Community Service

Gerry Howze
P.E.A.R.L.S. For Teen Girls, Inc.

Gerry Howze, Executive Director of PEARLS for Teen Girls, grew up in Chicago in what she calls a “sweet bubble.” She and her twin sister lived with two loving parents— her mother was an educator and her dad owned a barber shop. Then, as she terms it, after their deaths her “made for Lifetime movie” life started.

“Growing up with my parents, we were afforded lots of privileges and opportunities many black and brown children didn’t have—material things, vacations and access to affluence and resources were readily available to us. Then a year after my sister and I started middle school, our bubble burst. My mother died from leukemia and a year later my dad passed from a heart attack. The family began fighting over who would get custody of us, because whoever got custody, got control over everything—my parents’ money and property,” said Gerry.

Because of the rift between her maternal and paternal sides of the family, Gerry ultimately chose to live with her godmother, who became she and her sister’s legal guardian. That decision started a whirlwind of unexpected and traumatic experiences.

“I ended up in an emotionally and verbally abusive household. Our godmother/guardian split me and my sister up, and sent us to different boarding schools in different parts of the country during our sophomore year. Everything looked nice on the outside, but it was not a good living situation. She often told me that I was fat, ugly, that nobody would ever love me, and I was only good for welfare and making babies. It’s very telling that at 53 years old, I can still recite her words, as if she just spoke them to me yesterday. Thankfully, I used those words as motivation to prove her wrong because I clung to the foundation and confidence my parents had instilled in me,” said Gerry.

During her junior year in high school Gerry got pregnant and was sent away to a Catholic boarding school for pregnant girls to have the baby. After being forced to give her baby up for adoption she returned to her high school – a predominately Caucasian, Seventh Day Adventist high school in rural Wisconsin. Her sister was sent to an all-black boarding school in Piney Woods, Mississippi and was exposed to a completely different culture.

“A benefit of my high school experience – though separated from my twin sister – was that high school provided me with a wholesome, safe environment where I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Upon graduating, I was pregnant again and this time, determined not to give up my child, my sister and I moved into an apartment together,” she said.

Because they grew up differently, the living arrangement with her sister was short lived and Gerry found herself struggling to make ends meet with her son. Ineligible for welfare or other resources because she owned property left to her by her parents, for a while Gerry depended on the grace of God and people’s hearts to survive.

“I had been so sheltered—I had book smarts but I was street stupid, so I made lots of poor decisions,” she said. After several episodes of instability and moving around the country, Gerry, now with two sons, reluctantly moved to Milwaukee to stay with one of her sister’s friends.

After putting her children in Neighborhood House for kindergarten, she started participating a parenting program offered to students’ families titled the Nurturing Program.

“I fell in love with the program and eventually became a peer facilitator. I received my certification as a trainer, and eventually earned my national certification and became the lead trainer for Aurora Family Services (AFS). I met the development director for AFS through the training that the then president Dave Hoffman, mandated that all his staff experience. She referred me to my first “real” job as the assistant to the development director at United Cerebral Palsy. I later moved on to the Nonprofit Center (at the time called MAUD) as the assistant to the executive director. AFS’s development director eventually offered to mentor me, and I returned to AFS as her assistant.

“I learned my work ethic, value and understanding of the importance of culture from AFS. As I began my healing process as a peer facilitator, I was on welfare, broken and hopeless but because I was treated with dignity and respect and their culture allowed me to be a part of my own rescue, it made all the difference in the world in shifting my beliefs and direction of what was possible for my life. It’s there that I learned about leadership opportunities and training. After attending one training in Atlanta, I returned to Milwaukee with a greater purpose. I became obsessed with finding ways that I could make a difference,” she said.

Gerry looked to her foundation of faith for answers, and knew that her purpose on earth was to love. Fascinated with leadership, Aurora started a leadership academy and Gerry developed a leadership program for young adults, 16-24 years of age. During this time the founder of PEARLS, Colleen Fitzgerald, was conducting strategic planning with leaders at AFS. As the assistant to the development director she and Gerry developed a rapport and one day she invited Gerry to a meeting. Gerry learned that she was looking for an African American woman interested in facilitating self-development and leadership training for middle school girls. That discussion resulted in Gerry becoming the first PEARLS group facilitator, then the first program director and now the organization’s third executive director.

Over the years, she had enrolled in college courses at MATC, UWM, and Alverno College. Joining the PEARLS team proved to be a turning point for Gerry. Because she couldn’t model academic achievement for girls if she didn’t earn a degree, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in human services from Springfield College, graduating summa cum laude.

“I feel really honored that I have had the opportunity to grow with PEARLS and be there from the beginning when the founder. Through blood, sweat and tears we collectively created the framework, logic model and theory that we continue to use to this day. I really did not want this job when Danae Davis left. Her last day was the first day we moved into our current location. The team was great. We moved into a space three times larger, with no development director, but I had the team’s and alumnae’s confidence, and as I served as interim, I earned the board’s confidence. Though I thought I didn’t want the position, I realized that there wasn’t anyone who knew this organization better, or loved it more. PEARLS is my baby—it’s like my youngest child who got the most of my attention,” she said.

Gerry unselfishly lends her time and talent to many other community initiatives. She is a 2005 Future Milwaukee graduate. She has certificates in youth development, training, and leadership. She has served on the boards of Repairers of the Breach, Milwaukee Scholars and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Diversity & Community Engagement Committee, and Renaissance Theatreworks. She is currently a board member for Diverse & Resilience, vice chair of TEMPO’s Emerging Women Leaders board, and TEMPO’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. She is also a member of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties Speakers Bureau.

“December 2019 marks 30 years since I came to Milwaukee lost, broken and feeling defeated. I have been afforded so many opportunities that have supported my personal and professional development over the years – two major ones include being selected to learn from and share with amazing nonprofit leaders from around the world at both Georgetown and Harvard. When my boys and I struggled to survive during the worst of times, I could never imagine that my life would wind up like this. I am a walking, talking testimony of grace, favor, resilience,” she said.

Gerry’s story of grace, mercy and redemption doesn’t end there. A few years back, when she and her staff were gathered in her office preparing to celebrate the holidays, the phone rang and it was the daughter Gerry had given up for adoption.

“She found me. I fell out of my chair and started sobbing. She visited me the day after Christmas and it was like looking at myself in the mirror— even our Afrocentric outfits were coordinated. The entire experience has been wonderful. I’m now connected to all my children. It’s such a blessing.”