Part I

Houston County Women’s Resources, on July 30, 1984, was registered as a private, nonprofit Minnesota corporation. Its purpose, as stated in its Articles, is “To fill women’s needs for support in crisis…through personal interaction, support groups, educational programs and counseling….” “…that HCWR be a “natural channel” through which abused women can go when they are in need of support and guidance. A battered woman’s first contact is with an advocate whose role is not to intervene in a situation involving family violence, but to be there when a woman reaches out. The advocate is nonjudgmental, will listen, will give whatever support is asked for, and offer options. The ultimate goal is to empower women to make their own choices. Consequently, the motto, “Women helping women help themselves” evolved.

In the late 1970’s, in Caledonia, MN, an isolated small town in the far southeastern part of Minnesota, a woman named Pat Young owned and operated a gift and bookstore called “The Brass Banana.” Her bookstore became a place for conversation and discussion about the feminist books sold there. Eventually, as women came together to talk, they scheduled monthly meetings that rotated among their homes. The group needed a name and they gave themselves the name of Houston County Women’s Coalition, nicknamed, HoCoWoCo. The monthly meetings provided these women a place to share things about themselves and their lives as women, wives, mothers, artists, musicians, animal raisers, vegetable growers and feminists, in a non-threatening, nonjudgmental atmosphere.

As a result of these meetings and their awareness of women’s oppression, specifically in Houston County, several of the members collaborated with the Community Ed Coordinator, Pat Guth, in planning a conference, “The Changing Roles of Rural Women,” a project funded by the Minnesota Humanities Committee. The group began to work diligently hoping to draw at least fifty women from the county to the conference. Surprisingly, over 200 people, mostly women attended this Saturday all day powerful conference. The keynote speaker was Carol Bly, a Minnesota writer. Some of the other presenters were Pauline Jackson, psychologist, Susannah Lloyd, anthropologist, Dr. Sara Hunter, educator, and Candice DeGrazia, lawyer—their workshops included topics on the feminist movement, women and drugs, family violence and the roles of religion in rural life. Women attending the workshops shared their emotional stories of isolation and abuse in the workshops. After that Saturday in September 1978, it was apparent that oppression and violence against women were a problem in this County; the problem needed to be addressed, women could make it happen, and Women were not alone!

In 1981 Sandi Krajewski and Madelon Wise, with the assistance of Dottie Bellanger, Sexual Assault Coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center, WRC, of Winona, MN, wrote a grant request for $3600 to the Department of Corrections. The grant was awarded and Houston County Women’s Resources was born. Madelon’s house in rural Spring Grove doubled as the office, and with the assistance of the WRC in Winona, eight women were trained as advocates for HCWR. Some of those first advocates were: Lois Brittenham, Mary Netzer, Jean Amlaw, Sarah Goff, Sandi Krajewski, Mary Vrabel, Ann Foxen, Jane Bruns-Ondell and Mary Jane Mullen—women of a wide age range and backgrounds. Most of these women came from places other than Houston County but were committed to making their communities a safer place. In addition to advocacy services, HCWR offered crisis intervention and a 24-hour crisis line for victims of battering and sexual assault through First-Call-For-Help, a resource and referral agency in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In 1981 Houston County Women’s Resources (HCWR) recognized the importance of education in the schools as long-term prevention of violence against women and children. Jackie Hatlevig, a psychiatric nurse and counselor, joined the staff and began the work of educating teachers and children about “Good Touch/Bad Touch.” Her work was funded by a County health plan and all of the school districts in the County.

The rapid growth of HCWR necessitated it becoming independent from the WRC of Winona and seeking nonprofit status and incorporation. HCWR was eventually incorporated July 30th, 1984. Donna Cannon was hired as director for thirty hours per week with the office in her home in Caledonia. Donna, when she wasn’t doing crisis intervention, school education, systems advocacy or bookkeeping, did a great deal of public speaking to women’s groups, attempting to raise public awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In January 1986 HCWR was awarded a $15,000 grant to establish an office site and hire a second staff member. The office space was rented from the then Caledonia Hospital and Clinic. There were two rooms rented for offices with access to a conference room. Peggy Johaningsmeier was hired as the Child Abuse Project Coordinator and thus the services to children began. This same year Robert Wagner, Houston County’s first child protection/school liaison officer, collaborated with Jackie Hatlevig, and together they gave in-service programs to teachers, parents and students; they titled their program the Personal Safety Program.

In June 1987 JoAnn Thomas was hired as a twenty hour per week director. Her excellent grant writing skills produced moneys for a women’s advocate coordinator, Julie Meyer, and an office manager, Mary Jane Mullen. By 1989 a part-time bookkeeper, Ingrid Fowler, and a children’s program coordinator, Julie O’Mara-Meyer, were added to that staff. Of course, more staff meant more office space, and a total of three rooms were rented at the Caledonia Hospital.

JoAnn Thomas wrote and received a grant for a two-year project, entitled the Rural Women’s Leadership Project (RWLP), funded by SEMN Initiative Fund. RWLP provided a place for rural women to develop leadership skills, knowledge of issues and root causes of violence, and the ability to work with others toward making positive change for women in Houston County. The project, coordinated by Annette Norgard, was based on the belief that increased leadership and participation would increase the status of equality of women, and address the number of incidents of violence against women. The success of the project was rewarded by another grant for an additional year.

In 1991 Janet Cain was hired as part-time director after JoAnn Thomas’ resignation. Within a month of Janet assuming the directorship, the Hospital was sold and became The Lutheran Home, a nursing home. The nursing home needed HCWR’s space and Janet faced the difficult challenge of quickly finding new office space. With the help of former and present board members, a new space was found and HCWR relocated into the basement of the Sprague Bank in Caledonia.

The numbers of women and children clients increased. The role of the advocate for women began changing—more knowledge of the law was required, and more trainings. The children’s program expanded, most likely a result of a better educated community. The hard work of the past was paying off in making people safer. Linda Riddle was hired in December 1992 as a full-time director after Janet Cain’s resignation.

Linda Riddle’s accomplishments as director is material for another piece of HCWR’s herstory.

HCWR has come a long way since those humble beginnings, but has never lost its vision to end violence. Houston County Women’s Resources is very fortunate to have had committed Board members and staff, as well as many community supporters who believe in the mission of HCWR.

Part II

Written by Linda Riddle, July 2003

The preceding eloquent piece was written by Mary Jane Mullen in 1994 as part of our 10th Anniversary Celebration. Mary Jane was an original volunteer who became a long-time staff member at HCWR. Her kind, gentle and nonjudgmental advocacy gave many women the faith to believe that they truly were not alone and the strength to journey down the long and unknown path to safety and freedom. Mary Jane retired from HCWR in July of 2002, we will always miss her. I would like to dedicate Part II of HCWR’s “Herstory” to honor Mary Jane Mullen and the other agency “founding mothers.” We would not be a strong, thriving agency today were it not for women who, in an earlier time, were willing to “dig in their heels” for women’s rights and non-violence.

Having said that, I will briefly highlight the accomplishments of Houston County Women’s Resources from 1992 through mid-2003.

Looking back, the first few years of my tenure as director were spent “firming up” the agency. We worked on board development, short- and long-range planning, restructuring of staff and contracted positions, and lots of community outreach and education in addition to our daily work of providing advocacy, support, and safehoming. We secured per diem funding , in 1994, from the MN Department of Human Services to cover the time and costs involved in safehoming women and children who were fleeing violence. In 1995, we became a member agency of the United Way of the Greater La Crosse Area (one of only three in Houston County, the others being Camp Winnebago and Association for Retarded Citizens, ARC). The professional relationships developed with other United Way agencies have become very valuable in coordinating services in La Crosse for Houston County women and children. HCWR staff often work with staff from New Horizons, Salvation Army, Credit Counseling Center, First-Call-For-Help and Safe Path, the domestic violence/sexual assault program located at Franciscan-Skemp Healthcare Center.

Locally, we coordinate regularly with Human Services, Semcac, Work Force, the four local school districts, the criminal justice system, the area churches and clinics, and public health—especially for WIC and Parent Education. We are always available to give presentations, trainings, and workshops on topics related to violence and violence prevention. The Child Abuse Prevention Council, begun in the early 90’s, continued until the legislative chopping block of 2003 made funding for child abuse prevention a thing of the past on July 1, 2003. The CAP Council was responsible for many of the beautiful, child-designed billboards that have been a constant positive presence across Houston County for the last few years. HCWR was the fiscal agent for the CAP Council and came to the table for the formation of the Houston County Family Services Collaborative in the mid-90’s. We have always tried to be a voice at the Collaborative, for the poor and least privileged members of society, as is in keeping with our mission.

Houston County Women’s Resources’ Mission Statement is a living, breathing document—it is what we turn to for direction. Our philosophy in developing programming is two-fold: 1) listen to the needs of our clients, and 2) compare these needs with our mission, usually a logical direction unfolds.

“Houston County Women’s Resources works to create a non-violent world which affirms the rights and dignity of all individuals. We celebrate diversity among all persons and recognize their equality. We seek a world in which women and children are empowered to make choices and experience personal freedom, and all people have the understanding and skills to live non-violently. Everyone has the right to live in a safe and peaceful world.” --HCWR’s Mission Statement

This strategy has proven to be solid and successful. We began a supervised visit and exchange program—S.A.F.E. (Safety Assured Family Exchanges) in 1995 that has provided over 800 safe, court-ordered visits or exchanges.

We developed a Housing program starting in 1995 with the rental of a three-bedroom home from Rural Development. Because we saw the need for safe, affordable and immediately available housing for women and children left homeless by domestic violence, we began to plan for the expansion of our Housing program with the creation, in 1996-97, of June Kjome Place (JKP), an apartment building for independent living for seven families with support services available on-site. JKP opened on January 2, 1998. JKP has a full-time manager, a wonderful library, weekly parent education groups, support groups, after-school groups and activities for resident kids, plus the basic and individual work done by each family on their goals and budgets.

Over the years, JKP has been home to 47 families with 123 kids, all of whom had been homeless prior to entering our program. Twenty-four families were new to Houston County, 23 families became homeless while in the County. There is no way to express how valuable this program, and the compassion, support and donations from the community, has been to the lives of these 170 children, parents, and single women.

By 1996, we needed some “breathing room” and moved from our Caledonia office, in the basement of Sprague Bank, to Main Street in Hokah, MN. The move to Hokah has made us much more accessible to the northern part of Houston County, resulting in a significant increase in clients from the La Crescent/Hokah area.

From our base here at 112 Main Street, we served 181 battered women, 103 sexual assault victims, 184 child victims, had 144 safehome days and worked with 57 homeless families (JKP and our scattered sites) in 2002 alone! We operate a “Free Store” which is used daily; we have planned and conducted an exciting, developmental program for children each summer since 1998.

We face each day with creativity, innovation, and faith. We have a beautiful mural on the outside of our building which was painted in 2001 to honor and “Thank” the city of Hokah. We have a full series of support and activity groups for children and youth, including a “Creative Expressions” Art Group that had a public showing of their art projects in the spring of 2003.

Our work has been recognized with various awards including a 1996 “MN Woman of the Year” Award from Chrysalis; a 1997 “Ownership/Management of Affordable Housing” Award, and a 2003 “Ann Bancroft Award.” HCWR staff present workshops at both the state and national conference level and clients are willing to tell their stories on panels and to lawmakers, influencing policy and funding decisions. I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of this agency and of everyone who has played a part in the positive, undaunted evolution of this social justice and human rights agency known as Houston County Women’s Resources.

Part III

Written by Robin Yaffe Tschumper, February 2011

To help increase the professionalism of HCWR, in 2005, a building was purchased at 114 Main Street in Hokah. A house in Caledonia was also purchased. We had been leasing this house for Housing. The move to the new building, which was formerly the home of Bluff Country Learning Options, gave the staff larger, private offices. It provided a cleaner, brighter, and cheerier environment where clients could feel greater comfort and ease. Private offices also fostered a greater sense of confidentiality among the staff and clients. One negative to the move was the loss of the “Free Store.”

At the end of 2006, Linda Riddle, who had served for 14 years as HCWR’s Executive Director, moved on to bigger things. Linda was a dedicated and tireless Director who believed strongly in the mission of the agency. She fought many hard battles during her tenure on behalf of women, children and people who are homeless. Linda was truly the face of HCWR and many people had a difficult time separating the person from the agency. Linda really gave her all to Houston County Women’s Resources, social justice, human and women’s rights. In December of 2006, Dr. Robin Yaffe Tschumper, a board member was hired to take over the helm of HCWR.

Robin brought a very different management and leadership style to the agency. After a year of getting her bearings and developing an understanding of the agency, Robin’s primary job was to maintain funding while getting the organization’s house in order. Because of governmental changes, greater transparency began to be required. It became necessary to do a better job of tracking expenditures and documenting our work. Budget cuts loomed at every turn and maintaining funding became an ever greater concern. In 2008 we entered an era of bad economy and a massive 5 billion dollar State deficit.

One way of better limiting our expenditures was to update HCWR’s mission statement. In January 2008, we relabeled our mission statement as our vision statement. Our new mission became: “HCWR provides non-judgmental crisis intervention and advocacy to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and homelessness. We are a grassroots organization advocating for these causes and encouraging self-advocacy in program participants.” This major change encouraged staff to make decisions on how to help clients based on their situation and its applicability to the organization’s mission. While this notion had been a part of the agency’s philosophy for many years, the new mission statement made this a reality.

At the annual meeting in December 2008, we celebrated 25 years of service to Houston County. Included at this meeting was a vote by the membership to change the organization’s name to Bluff Country Women’s Resources. The motion failed by a very small margin.

At a special meeting of the membership in August 2009, new by-laws were adopted. Among the many updates was a change in the date of the annual meeting to June.

A name change for the agency continued to be an issue. At the heart of the issue was the need to broaden our client base by making the agency friendlier to men, boys, families, and the LGBTQ community. It was also felt that a name change could help increase funding and donations. Many people wrongly believed Houston County Women’s Resources was a county agency and did not serve men. If the name was changed, perhaps more people would feel freer to seek assistance. It might also increase our donations. At the annual meeting in June 2010, the membership voted to change the name of the organization to Bluff Country Family Resources.

With the name change a flurry of activity began. This major change called for a new website, new brochures, a new logo, and a new sign in front of the building. We decided to try and use the new logo to “brand” the agency and began using it liberally. We also adopted a new motto. Since we were formally acknowledging our service to victims other than women, we decided that “women helping women help themselves” was outdated. Our new tagline became “Safe families, Healthy Communities”. Despite this change, serving and helping to empower women remained the primary goal since they are most likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Through all of the changes, we maintain our passionate service to victims of interpersonal violence. Over the years, we have consistently served approximately 300 victims of domestic violence annually. Typically, 95% of these clients are women. Our children’s program, including those who participate in our summer program serves at least 150 children annually. Our sexual assault and Safe Home statistics are not as consistent. In 2009 we served approximately 30 sexual assault victims and provided about 100 safehome days.

We continue to serve homeless families at JKP. Because of large State budget deficits, in 2009 we were asked by the State to focus on the residents at JKP. They advised us to spend more on a few clients, rather than take a broad approach and serve many clients. Given the budget deficit, this became a necessity. At the time of the writing of this addition to the story, there is a closed waiting list for Section 8 Rental Assistance vouchers. The wait time for a voucher for those lucky enough to be on the list is now 1-2 years. Until the list is reopened, new residents at JKP cannot be added to the list; and no rental assistance will be coming to the residents during their allowable 24 month stay in Housing. Given this, much of our State grant money for housing goes to provide rent subsidies for the tenants at JKP. There is no longer enough to cover all of this expense, and no funding to provide assistance to other homeless victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, we continue to provide housing for about 13 families annually.

In February 2011, we adopted a new mission and vision statement, as well as core values. Our financial situation is precarious because the State faces a 6.2 billion dollar deficit. However, at this time we continue to be funded by the State of Minnesota’s Office of Justice Programs and the State’s Dept. of Human Services, Office of Economic Opportunity Housing Program; Great Rivers United Way (La Crosse area); the Winona Community Foundation (emergency assistance for clients only); Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless; as well as by fund-raisers, memberships and donations.