Fifty years ago, Martha Watts, owner of the Watts Tea Room, received a call that would forever solidify her reputation in Milwaukee’s nonprofit community.

Community leader and philanthropist, Jane Pettit, asked Marti if she might be interested in visiting a Montessori school for central-city children with special needs. Marti’s curiosity got the best of her.

It didn’t take long before Marti was hooked. Eager to create positive change for one of the city’s most underserved populations, Marti agreed and committed herself to this upstart organization as one of its founding Board members.

From there, several civic and community leaders, senior business executives and education leaders were invited to join the Board as founding members. Betty Bostrom, Marilyn Bradley, Jane Eastham and Barbara Elsner nurtured their passion for helping underserved children with the work happening at this new school. In the 1960s, the fate of children with disabilities was bleak. These civic leaders who made up the organization’s initial Board of Directors knew there had to be a better solution and future for these kids.

In 1967, the Via Marsi Montessori School was formally created, based on the educational system developed by Maria Montessori. Via Marsi was the first school in the U.S. to apply the Montessori Method’s educational approach to a student population that consisted entirely of children with disabilities or delays.

The founding Board shared a deeply held conviction that every child should be given a chance to learn and succeed, without limits to their growth or expectations. The gains the children made at Via Marsi were groundbreaking. Realizing initial success, they sought opportunities to help additional students and families by building on the results achieved inside the first two classrooms at St. Michael’s Parish.

In the early 1970s, Priscilla Penfield Chester joined the Board of Directors at a critical point in the organization’s history. By 1974, the founders had rallied enough support to convert a two-story apartment building and an adjacent two-story bowling alley into a center to help impoverished central-city children in Milwaukee reach their full potential. Named in honor of Priscilla’s father, Dr. Wilder Penfield – a world-renowned neurosurgeon who strongly advocated for early intervention for children with development delays and disabilities – Penfield Children’s Center was born.

The vision, leadership and courage of Penfield’s founding members to advocate for the most vulnerable children in our community has led Penfield Children’s Center to serve more than 30,000 children and families during a half century of providing care. This phenomenal achievement cannot be celebrated without honoring those who made it possible.

At the 2017 Croquet Ball, Penfield Children’s Center will present its Benefactor Award to Penfield’s founders; Betty Bostrom, Marilyn Bradley, William Chester, William Eastham, Barbara Elsner and Martha Watts in recognition of their vision and dedication to the success of Milwaukee’s children.

The 22nd annual Croquet Ball will be held on September 9, 2017 at the Milwaukee Country Club. For additional information, visit

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