It was a time of crisis when George Torres took over leadership of one Milwaukee’s largest nonprofit and social service agencies.
La Causa, founded in 1972, had millions in debt. Agency workers had just been blamed for mishandling a child welfare case that led to the death of a toddler.
But Torres, then the county’s director of transportation and public works, knew how important the agency was to the south side neighborhood where he grew up.
Nearly 500 people applied and about a dozen were interviewed, according to Journal Sentinel archives.
He took the job.
As he prepares to retire 14 years later, Torres leaves a legacy of stability. The organization serves thousands of families across Milwaukee through its charter school, Crisis Nursery & Respite Center, Early Education & Care Center and Social Services divisions.
“When George came to La Causa, it was in quite a bit of trouble,” said Lyman Tschanz, who served on the nonprofit’s board and was vice president of manufacturing at Rockwell Automation before retiring last year.
“George was just relentless on the pursuit of doing the right things and doing them the right way,” he said.
Torres was born and raised on Milwaukee’s south side and is of Puerto Rican heritage.
“There are a few people that get a chance to come back and work in their own neighborhood,” he said. “I had an opportunity to come back into a neighborhood where, again, these are the people I grew up with.”
He attended schools in Milwaukee’s south side and graduated from Cardinal Stritch University
Torres oversaw two airports and all of Milwaukee’s transit facilities in his position as director of transportation works for Milwaukee County. He says working in the public sector for nearly 20 years prepared him to take on a leadership role at La Causa.
“Most of my career was really … dedicated to serving,” he said. “Serving the general public, serving our customers. So, from that standpoint, there wasn’t much of a change.”
During his time at La Causa, Torres helped improve the charter school’s performance in the State Report Card and doubled its enrollment. He designed a new corporate building and a new Crisis Nursery and Respite Center to better serve the community. He also helped increase the enrollment in the charter school.
In 2009, workers at La Causa were blamed for mishandling a child welfare case that led to the death of a 13-month-old under the care of his aunt, according to Journal Sentinel archives.
The case – as well as other visions for the agency – led to the organization terminating its $11 million child welfare contract with the state. The contract allowed La Causa to provide case management and Safety services, according to archives.
“The child welfare piece was something that I knew coming on board … that I was not interested in having be part of our portfolio,” Torres said.
Torres had a different vision for the organization, including setting aside more resources for other services that La Causa offered, like its charter school.
“I had explained to the board before I came on board that those were the things that I wanted to divest ourselves of… we were able to transition through that nicely,” he said.
La Causa was also facing millions of dollars in debt when Torres took over the organization.