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HISTORY

Woman with finger to lips to depict telling someone to be quiet
An idea

That said, some parishioners at St. Lawrence Catholic Church is Wisconsin Rapids recognized domestic violence was an issue that not only needed to be discussed, it needed attention -- and victims needed support.

Three women from the congregation – Bonnie Bressers, Gina (Ostruski) Barthol, and Joan Carroll -- approached the pastor at the time, the Rev. Joseph Bilgrien, with an idea:

“Why not use the vacated convent to establish a shelter for victims of abuse?”
Picture of the first Family Center shelter in 1984

The Wisconsin Rapids Family Center was founded in a former convent across the street from St. Lawrence Catholic Church, at 510 10th Ave. N. 

The Parish Council agreed to rent the building for $1 a year – and work began to change the former convent into a women’s shelter.

The 1908 building, vacant for some time, needed work, and volunteers and donors stepped up to the challenge, making the necessary renovations. Legal work needed to be completed in regard to ordinances and other issues. Again, an attorney from the parish stepped up and donated his services. The City Council was approached, hurdles were cleared, and necessary permits put in place.

By July of 1983, the Articles of Incorporation were developed, a Board of Directors established, and The Family Center opened its doors on July 1, 1984.

Small on space, big on dedication

There were five bedrooms, one bathroom, one living room, a small dining room and kitchen, play area, laundry room, visitation area, storage for donations, and a business office.

 

The Center was minimally staffed – Arline Hillestad, the director, was the only full-time employee, along with a part-time volunteer coordinator.

 

Volunteers were, and continue to be, an essential part of the agency's operation.  (Click here to get volunteer information.)

Picture of first director, Arline Hillestad and a volunteer

Arline Hillestad, at right, the first director at The Wisconsin Rapids with a volunteer.

Picture of staff members in the early years

Scenes from The Family Center's first location in the former St. Lawrence Catholic Church convent.

It was the beginning of what would lead to the present facility and expanded services.

Picture of staff members in the early years
More awareness, more needs

By its second year of operation, The Family Center was not only generating conversations within the community – it was gaining support.

United Way of Inner Wisconsin approached Hillestad, wanting to help, and has since been a consistent financial supporter and advocate for the shelter. The Center began receiving a variety of local, state and federal grant funding.

In 1989, Wisconsin passed the Mandatory Arrest Law, requiring law enforcement to arrest and take into custody a person believed to have committed a crime in the context of domestic abuse. This law helps protect victims, and helps give them a voice. The law also brought more awareness to the work and availability of the Center.

Picture of the visitation center when located in downtown Wisconsin Rapids

With growing financial support, awareness, and input from clients, it was determined more services, space and staff were needed.

In the spring of 1998, The Family Center opened a business office and Supervised Visitation and Exchange Program in the downtown area.

Needs outgrow space

As the years went by, the needs were outgrowing the shelter space. In 2002, it was decided to build a new facility. A capital campaign got underway, buoyed by a $1 million grant from the Mead-Witter Foundation. In September 2003, groundbreaking took place for the $2 million facility.

Groundbreaking for the new center on 25th Street North
New center in progress

The ceremonial groundbreaking at 500 25th St. N. for the new Center (top left).

A view of the Visitation Center while under construction  (top right).

At bottom left, the front office entrance (far right) and the Visitation Center's exchange entrance (at left) start to take shape.

The new shelter area under construction (bottom right).

New center being built
New center being built
New shelter opens

In October of 2004, just a few months after The Family Center celebrated its 20th anniversary, the new Center opened. It features six bedrooms, each with a private bath, two living rooms, shared dining areas, play area, laundry area with two washers and two dryers, office areas, meeting rooms and visitation/exchange area.

Click through the photo gallery!
Fresh looks

In late 2022 and early 2023, The Adopt-A-Room project encouraged local organizations and businesses to adopt a shelter room and give it a fresh look. Thanks to these generous groups, all the shelter bedrooms and kitchens were given updated looks. Click here to check out the photos.

Leadership

In its 40 years of existence, the Center has had only four executive directors: Arline Hillestad retired in 2012, and was succeeded by Danita Carlson, followed by Vickie Hodge in 2014. Sue Sippel served as the director from July 2015 through mid-May 2023. Tricia Fancher became the director in May 2023.

More advocacy positions have been added to address specific needs of clients and their families. Services include a Violence Prevention Specialist, Sexual Assault Services Coordinator, Hmong Advocate, Domestic Violence Housing First Coordinator, Domestic Violence Services Coordinator, Shelter Coordinator and Children and Youth Services Coordinator. Additionally, The Family Center has a Visitation Services staff to work with supervised visits and safe exchanges. Office staff includes the Executive Director, Operations and Finance Manager, Program Services Manager and Administrative Development and Volunteer Coordinator

Don't talk about it

Domestic violence usually isn’t coffee table conversation.

 

But maybe it should be. Because it happens in a lot of families. 

 

It’s just that it is something people often keep to themselves – as was the case back in the 1980s.

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