|Pat Tookata Wongkit
Pat Tookata Wongkit
It was a challenge for Wongkit to enter the labor market full-time as a teen parent. But she had the grit and determination to make it work.
“I went to WPS for about five years,” Wongkit said. “I started at the entry level and moved my way up. I was a data-entry processor for foreign claims. They
had a special unit and I was able to help translate things coming from Thailand. It was full-time and overtime and it helped me support my baby back then.
I got a townhouse over at Packers Apartments and that is the only way that I could make it. It was low-income housing and the rent was 30 percent of my
income. I remember getting on the bus to go to work at 4-5 a.m. and get to work super-early and work all day long. And then I would go back to work on
Saturday a lot of the time too. There was a day care right behind WPS. It was easy to take and pick up my baby. WPS was located on Park Street back then
in the Villager Mall. And there was a bowling alley.”
Wongkit stayed in the health insurance industry when she moved over to Physicians Plus, which had some offices on W. Washington Avenue at the time.
And then in 1995, something life changing happened for Wongkit: the construction of the Community Learning Centers at Northport and Packers
Apartments where she lived.
It was the philosophy of Rev. Carmen Porco and Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin, which managed the complexes, to support the
residents above and beyond giving them a place to live. They believed in community and the possibilities of the people who lived there. They placed an
emphasis on hiring people from the complexes to work in the complexes.
“I was kind of hand-picked,” Wongkit, who by now was married and had two kids, said. “My first position was as a program coordinator. Derrick Jones was
a program coordinator and left that position to become a manager and so his position became open. That’s when he was like, ‘Hey, I think you would be
great.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I was used to working in an office and I didn’t know anything about working with other people’s kids, computers or
whatever. I gave it some thought. They told me to come in and talk to Carmen and two managers. I think Jackie Thomas was there. There were four
people interviewing me. That made me very nervous. I thought we just had to talk about and here I came into an interview. I think somehow, Carmen
thought I would be great too. They asked me to give it a try and I said yes. The community learning centers were brand new back then. They always wanted
to invest in people. And they told me that when there were job openings that they wanted to hire residents. And if they didn’t have the skills or the training,
they would provide that. I think that was the only reason why I came on board, because I knew that they were going to invest in me. And if I didn’t know what
I was doing, there would be other support like Jackie and training. It was a caring environment. It was like a big family. Everyone was helpful.”
While Wongkit was new to the position, the Community Learning Centers and the role that they were going to serve was also new. It was a fast and
demanding time that Wongkit thrived in as she gained additional skills while serving her community.
“We didn’t know everything that we would be doing,” Wongkit recalled. “I knew that I would be working with kids. But if anything came up, I found out that I
would have to learn, whatever it was. We had a computer lab to help residents learn how to work with computers. Quickly, I had to learn how to use a
computer and the software. And then I had to learn how to train others how to use. I did a lot of working after hours. Carmen took a chance on me. He gave
me this opportunity and I could not let him down. No matter what, I knew I was going to be able to do it, so I had to learn a lot of things on my own. Jackie
was there to help. And we did learn together. So from learning how to use a computer, programs, training people how to use the computers and the
programs, then I had to learn how to fix the computers and maintain the computer lab on top of running after school and summer programs. All of those
things were fast developing and so quickly, I had to learn each one. We had community dinners. We had meetings with all of these people. I had to meet
with different partners to try to come up with programs. I worked with the schools. We had back-to-school backpack giveaways. There was a lot going on.”
Wongkit eventually went back to school to get an associate’s degree in computer systems administration and is now in Madison College’s network
“I’m still learning a lot and a lot of things are making sense to me now,” Wongkit observed. “If I had done this earlier maybe, I would have grasped it a little
bit better. But no matter what, if I don’t do well in classes, I’m still learning something and I get the practice. I had to learn things on the fly and I think that is
the best thing.”
That initial clerical skills training at the Urban League has paid off a lot for Wongkit and the north side community of Madison. While Wongkit has been
able to provide for herself and her family, she has also made an impact on the lives of others.
“I’ve worked here for 23 years,” Wongkit said. “We have about 200 kids every year. And I worked with a couple thousand people over the years. I run into
kids who know my name and I feel terrible because a lot of times, I don’t remember their names or their moms’ names. There are just so many.”
A public investment in people pays dividends for years to come.
I want to stay here as long as I can, as long as I have good energy.
By Jonathan Gramling
Back in the mid 1980s, Pat Tookata Wongkit was a single parent and alone.
She wasn’t receiving support from any family or friends and was trying to make
do for herself and her child. And then somehow, Wongkit made her way to the
Madison Urban League on E. Gorham Street.
“It was horrible parking at the Urban League back then,” Wongkit said with a
Wongkit’s experience at the Urban League set her up for the first phase in her
“I remember taking different classes like a computer class,” Wongkit said. “I
was in one of the clerical skills training program classes. They matched me
with an employer and I got to work with at least two different employers, I
believe, to gain experience. It was a small business. I also worked with
Lorraine Henderson in the School Age Parents Program. She was the only
person back then who was guiding me. I was so young. I didn’t really know
what I was doing. So at the time, the Urban League was just right for me. It was
a good resource for me. I can’t remember how long I was there because it was
just so long ago. But I had a good experience. It was around 1986. Ms. Betty
Franklin-Hammonds was still there.”