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.
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?”
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.
Arline Hillestad, at right, the first director at The Wisconsin Rapids Family Center, chats with a volunteer.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
In its 35 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 has held the position since 2015. More advocacy positions have been added to address specific needs of clients and their families. While all advocates can address the needs of clients, specialties include: Victim Resources, Visitation Center Coordinators, Hmong Advocates, Sexual Assault Victim Services, Violence Prevention, Children and Youth Services, and Senior and Vulnerable Adult Coordinator. The office staff includes the Executive Director, Operations Manager, Finance Manager, Volunteer Coordinator, and Community Outreach/Fund Development Manager.
Offices were remodeled in 2018 to provide more confidentially for clients. Plans are underway to upgrade the almost 15-year-old structure to incorporate higher safety standards for clients.
The Family Center has launched a mobile advocacy to reach clients in their homes, and office hours at local law enforcement and other community agencies. The Family Center continues to strive to find the best ways to help those in crisis due to domestic violence, and help them become strong, independent survivors.