Three Novembers ago, Jennifer Bartolotta walked out of St. Marcus School’s Benefit Gala set on one life altering decision.
Bartolotta, now chief executive officer of Train-2-Gain and director of the Bartolotta Restaurant Group’s Care-a-lotta, left the gala compelled to take a bold step outside the restaurant group she had spent nearly a decade in, working closely beside her husband, Joe.
Jennifer’s firm decision followed an evening of inspirational speeches by St. Marcus students – many from challenged backgrounds – who talked about the need to work hard in life and make big, bold moves.
As Jennifer sat in the audience listening, one word came to her: hypocrite. After a stretch of time of being comfortable, she was ready to be bold, recalibrate, and pursue a new personal and professional path. She declared her resignation that night.
The inspiration the Bartolottas have drawn from St. Marcus School has kept them engaged in its mission to prepare students from low-income households for high school, higher education and community leadership.
For the past five years, the Bartolottas have underwritten the cost of the school’s annual gala, which amounts to at least $40,000 each year. Along with donating all food to the event, they also staff it with 40 volunteer servers.
Jennifer credits St. Marcus as her “entrée” into urban education reform, as she now supports success in education across school sectors.
“It’s just such an amazing place,” Jennifer said of St. Marcus. “When you look at that zip code and you look at the residents, it’s easy to make assumptions until you get in there and learn.”
To have a place where kids can go to be served, pushed and shaped into amazing human beings is “so inspiring to me,” she said.
Outside of the gala, Jennifer and Joe have become consistent advocates for St. Marcus and helped spread awareness of the school by introducing friends and colleagues to its work.
The two are among the greatest connectors, according to Christine Safranek, director of mission advancement at St. Marcus School.
“They are unabashedly willing to be a vocal advocate for those organizations that they’re passionate about and whom they feel are improving the City of Milwaukee,” Safranek said.
In addition to support from the Bartolotta Restaurant Group and its philanthropic arm, Care-a-lotta, St. Marcus School benefits from the time, talent and treasure of other community partners, including Kohl’s employees, Palermo’s, Kapco Metal Stamping and PNC Bank.
Knowing that someone outside St. Marcus’ walls cares enough to actively invest in improving the school is an “amazing motivator” for teachers and students, Safranek said.
She believes that area businesses should find a way to be “intensely involved in education at every level.”
“We’re educating our future workforce, and there’s so much data out there to say if you do it well and you do it early we will have a very functional workforce,” Safranek said. “It’s a hard lesson for this city to learn.”
It will take an “army” of interested advocates and investors to brighten the state of education in Milwaukee, she added.