Alverno at Work: Lynnea Katz-Petted

As the virus that causes COVID-19 began spreading across Wisconsin in March, Gov. Tony Evers issued a Safer at Home Order with the intent of keeping people healthy. But being at home wasn’t the best place to be for some low-income homeowners in Milwaukee, who lacked hot water, a working toilet or working pipes. Dozens of people who may have been relying on a friend, neighbor or restaurant for access to a bathroom or running water instead turned to Revitalize Milwaukee, a nonprofit that provides free home repairs and services to low-income seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.

“Our call volume tripled almost overnight. Our expenses went up 240% and we had 121% more projects by the end of April,” says Lynnea Katz-Petted ’03, the organization’s chief executive.

When Katz-Petted turned to donors for financial help to meet the demand, they demurred, preferring to focus on health emergencies. “People weren’t hearing that we were responding to COVID-related issues,” says Katz-Petted. Pivoting quickly, she and her team changed the messaging and put out several radio ads to convey the overlooked hardships of low-income people. Within three weeks, Revitalize Milwaukee raised an additional $110,000, allowing the organization to fulfill requests to fix broken water heaters, repair leaking roofs, replace toilets, thermostats and rusty pipes as well as field calls for food, clothing, medical services and even slashed tires.

Katz-Petted’s ability to adapt quickly explains how she’s expanded Revitalize Milwaukee’s range of services and has grown its annual budget from $40,000 to $1.8 million in the 15 years she has been with the organization. Her drive and penchant for juggling multiple projects is fundamental to who she is. But her ability to cope under stress was refined at Alverno. “The teachers there are so talented in identifying where they think you can go and they keep pushing you to go there,” says Katz-Petted. “The resiliency that kind of teaching and learning builds is far beyond the subject.”

An invitation

The city of Milwaukee was not on Katz-Petted’s radar as a young woman. She grew up in Canada and in 1997 took a position as principal associate for a consulting firm, which moved her to Washington, D.C. There, she met Paul Petted of Franklin, Wis. After they became engaged, Katz-Petted moved to Wisconsin where she started a job with U.S. Bank and decided to finish her bachelor’s degree in business at Alverno.

As a student, she worked a full-time job with frequent travel. The hectic schedule and thought-provoking curriculum stretched her abilities and taught her resiliency. There were moments where her resolve wore thin. When one particular paper came back “with red ink all over it,” she broke down. She’d always seen herself as a bit of a perfectionist, but now she was being called out for a mediocre effort.

“In those moments, you decide if you’re going to be resilient and what that looks like and how that defines your reaction going forward,” she says. Now, when other challenges arise, she adopts the same attitude. “I ask myself, ‘What am I going to get out of this? What is the gift in my frustration? How do I come out of it learning something?” She stuck with it and graduated from Alverno in 2003 with a business degree.

Fortify a community

After graduation, Katz-Petted was introduced to a fledgling nonprofit called Rebuilding Together, which aimed to rehab homes for low-income residents. The organization’s board of directors wanted a leader who could raise the funds necessary to pay for her own salary as well as purchase materials, hire contractors and coordinate volunteers for a one-day event in which 10 homes would be fixed up.

As a transplant, Katz-Petted didn’t have a big local network. But she felt confident she could meet the organization’s goals. After all, she’d run several events for U.S. Bank in Las Vegas, and she and her husband had just finished building a home themselves. She was ready to take on the challenge.

“That’s where the resiliency comes in,” she says. “If you believe in something enough and keep your head down and keep working despite all of the thousands of obstacles, you’ll come out on the other side.”

As Rebuilding Together’s sole employee, Katz-Petted got down to business. After months of cold calling, networking, home visits and organizing logistics, she was able to “watch the magic” of hundreds of people coming together to fortify the community.

“One thing Lynnea understands, more so than most, is that a stable neighborhood is the key to the local economy’s success,” says Bruce Elliot, executive vice president of commercial lending at Tri City National Bank and chairman of board for the nonprofit.

For Katz-Petted, the smiles and the tears of gratitude from homeowners cemented her resolve. The transformational power of this work inspired her to rebrand Rebuilding Together as Revitalize Milwaukee to better convey the organization’s mission.

Block party

The pandemic didn’t stop the August 2020 Block Build, which featured new health and safety protocols.

Today, the annual home renovation extravaganza, dubbed Block Build, is a signature event. Instead of fixing up 10 homes, the organization targets up to 30 on a single block. Hundreds of skilled and unskilled volunteers contribute everything from yard cleanup and painting to fixing pipes and electrical wiring to installing new windows and doors. Over the years, Revitalize Milwaukee has beautified more than 460 homes in dozens of neighborhoods and responded to thousands of calls for repair services.

Elliot points out that Katz-Petted and her staff also connect clients to city and government services and benefits. “When I think about what the community would be like without Revitalize Milwaukee, it’s not good,” says Elliot.

Katz-Petted regularly draws from the 8 Abilities she refined at Alverno, whether it’s speaking in front of a crowd or taking a global perspective to ask if they’re doing enough. And she’s pretty much nailed effective citizenship. But she always comes back to her Alverno education and the resiliency she gained from the coursework and the instructors pushing her to excel.

“You come out stronger than when you went in,” she says.

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