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Grace Place in Somerset has been open for seven years. The first shelter of its kind in the area, the project was a joint effort by the Salvation Army and United Way St. Croix Valley. It also receives support from area churches, organizations and individuals. Photo by Margaret Ontl

United Way and Grace Place: a partnership that pays off

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River Falls, 54022
Hudson Star Observer
715-386-9891 customer support
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

It has been almost eight years since the first meeting of the Pierce/St. Croix Housing Resource Network in May 2001 when people began talking about opening a shelter in the area. Just a year and a half later, Grace Place opened in Somerset and has been operating ever since.

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That first year, Grace Place provided around 1,400 "bed nights." Last year Grace Place provided more than 9,100 nights in a clean, safe environment for individuals and families in need of a home. With the economic downturn, the need is expected to rise even more dramatically in the coming months and years.

Following that first meeting in 2001, the United Way St. Croix Valley board of directors decided to get behind the effort in a big way.

"It was the first time we had undertaken a leadership role with an initiative like Grace Place. We raised the initial money and worked with St. Anne's (Catholic Church) in Somerset to get the former convent. We then worked with Derrick Construction, J Mar Builders and the St. Croix Valley Builders Association to make the renovations, most at cost," said John Coughlin, executive director of United Way St. Croix Valley.

Coughlin said the United Way spearheaded the fund-raising for the building renovations. The Salvation Army agreed to provide staff as did WestCAP. Students from St. Anne's Catholic School came up with the name Grace Place.

Combined and collaborative efforts like those that built Grace Place continue to expand and support the services offered to residents there. Most of the rooms in the home were sponsored by churches or other groups who agreed to provide furnishings and decorate the space. They continue to sponsor the rooms with upkeep and improvements.

Duana Bremer of the Salvation Army is the director of Grace Place, but now divides her time between there and Serenity House, a shelter in Balsam Lake. She said Grace Place provides families and individuals more than just a bed to sleep in. She calls them "wrap-around services," things like help finding employment, after-school tutoring, parenting skills and transportation to and from work.

The Grace Place meal program provides meals Monday through Thursday. The food is prepared and served by volunteers, and residents are required to partake of the evening meals. There is also an after-school tutoring program that all children living at the shelter are required to attend.

Volunteer Kay Brooks contacts the children's teachers and finds out what subject each child needs help with. Parents are also required to attend parent/teacher conferences and can be accompanied by Brooks if they desire.

Bremer says many of the parents have had bad experiences themselves in school and are reluctant to get involved with their children's education. Brooks can serve as an advocate for both the parents and their children with the school. Most of the children in the shelter show at least a half grade improvement in their performance after being in the tutoring program.

"When residents first come to us, a lot of them don't like that we require them to go to the meals and have their kids in the tutoring program. But almost without fail, when they leave us, those are the things they mention as being important to them," said Bremer.

Residents at Grace Place also receive help finding employment if they need it. Volunteers work with them on applications and resumes and interview skills. The shelter provides transportation when necessary to interviews and jobs. The Family Resource Center, the Wisconsin Job Service and UW-Extension all work with Grace Place residents, all with the goal of helping them find employment and saving the money necessary to find a home of their own for their families.

Over the years, Grace Place has expanded with the help of United Way St. Croix Valley and other organizations. The former convent chapel was added to the space and renovated to provide additional living space for single men and women. The shelter is also home to the Somerset Food Pantry, which not only serves Grace Place but anyone in need of food in the area. At present the shelter has room for up to seven families, or a total of 24 people.

Something to be proud of

Both Coughlin and Bremer say the success of Grace Place is something the community can be proud of. They point to it as an example of effective collaboration. For the United Way St. Croix Valley, Grace Place was the first time the organization took on more of a role than fund-raising, and the gamble worked.

"Grace Place gave United Way more visibility and a very concrete example of what the funds we raise can do. We worked with other groups like the Salvation Army, WestCAP and others to make it happen, and we can all take pride in that," said Coughlin.

Bremer says simply, "Without the United Way, Grace Place wouldn't be there today. And the other facilities in the area that have opened since Grace Place -- Faith House in New Richmond, the House of Blessings in Osceola and Serenity House -- have all benefited from the success of that first effort."

And the work continues. The United Way St. Croix Valley's most recent initiative has been the Food Resource Center located in the town of Hudson. The center serves as a clearing house for thousands of pounds of food going to more than a dozen food shelves throughout the area.

Bremer and Coughlin are also working with ministers in River Falls and others to address homelessness in their area with a goal of having a facility like Grace Place in Pierce County.

Coughlin and Bremer both know that with the unemployment and homelessness on the rise in a declining economy, the resources of both their organizations will be strained. But they are hoping the success of Grace Place and its residents will inspire the community to keep supporting their work.

More information

To learn more about the efforts of United Way St. Croix Valley, or to make a donation, call (715) 377-0203 or visit www.unitedwaystcroix.org. For more information about Grace Place, to make a donation or to volunteer call (715)247-2944 or go online at www.salvationarmywi.org.

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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