The mood is festive, and sticky-fingered children and their parents and grandparents are having a ball making gingerbread houses. The event takes place every year at two different sites, planned and organized by the Family Centers of Door County (FCDC). It’s a typical event for the Family Centers: fun, free, intergenerational, and educational. You may not instantly recognize the Family Centers’ name, but chances are you have attended one of their events. The organization’s mission, “to strengthen and support families and communities,” is apparent in the more than 100 yearly happenings which last year touched over 4,000 people. The events take place all over the county and are open to residents and visitors alike.
FCDC’s definition of family is broad and inclusive, and a diverse slate of programs is constantly designed, analyzed, and implemented to serve people of all ages. Under the dedicated and imaginative leadership of Gina Wautier, the organization works hard to offer events that don’t replicate what other non-profits in the county offer. “The bulk of our programming happens in the off-season,” says Wautier. “In the summer, many of the people we serve are busy working in the fields, the farms, the businesses, and the service industry of Door County.”
Family Centers of Door County evolved from initiatives begun by a local coalition of human service agencies. These groups recognized a need for increased family support services in Door County. At first, the program ran under the auspices of HELP of Door County. Later, as the program grew, staff considered various models of service delivery. “We realized that Door County didn’t fit the model of having just one resource site,” says Wautier, Executive Director since 2003. So staffers developed the idea of locating several centers within smaller communities in the Door, and FCDC was born, receiving its non-profit status in 2005.
Welcoming me into the Brussels office of FCDC, Wautier gestures around the room. “This used to be my salon. Shampoo sink here, cutting station over there.” It’s obvious that Wautier has invested the same passion and creativity into Family Centers that she did into her own business. But the offices are not the focus of the organization. Rather, its heart lies in its host sites throughout the county, all the way from Washington Island, through Northern Door, Sturgeon Bay, and Southern Door.
The Family Centers’ four site coordinators live in the communities they serve, and offer programs specific to the needs of their locale and within easy reach of residents. The lack of a centralized program site is both a strength and a challenge for the organization. Clients who attend Family Centers’ events aren’t always aware of who sponsors them, since functions take place at such a wide variety of locations. The Family Centers’ long-term goals include finding a permanent site which would house offices and space for workshops and events. Ultimately, however, it’s all about the programming. “I love my job,” says Program Coordinator Justine Mancheski. “To build up and offer programs that touch people’s lives is wonderful.”
The organization could not operate without its formidable army of volunteers – over 300 people yearly – who together perform work that is equivalent to two full-time positions. Says Mancheski, “We could not do what we do without our collaborative partners.” She’s referring to the volunteers and to the organizations which make in-kind donations of their space: the Northern Door and Sturgeon Bay YMCAs, the Mosling Recreation Center on Washington Island, the Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay, Southern Door Schools, and the Forestville Town Hall. A listing of other partner organizations who donate space and resources reads like a who’s who of Door County non-profits: Door County Memorial Hospital, Bjِrklunden, The Music and Arts School, Crossroads at Big Creek, The Door County Maritime Museum, and many others.
It is the unusual breadth of services that makes the Family Centers special, says Dick Egan, chairman of the Door County Community Foundation and long-time supporter of FCDC. “Family Centers of Door County is a unique organization that delivers services that fall through the cracks of other agencies.” Most other agencies, Egan observes, center around a specific issue, but FCDC “covers the whole spectrum” of needs and it does it all over the county, “all the way from Kolberg to the island.”
Take a look at the roster of recent activities and you’ll see what Egan is talking about: there’s an autumn afternoon event to create home-made scarecrows, an Internet safety workshop for families, and the ever-popular Children’s Christmas Stores where kids can purchase and wrap holiday gifts for members of their families. Families in Southern Door enjoy a free movie and popcorn night at the public school four times a year, a popular event in the winter months. Says Mancheski, “It costs an arm and a leg to take a family to the theater. To be able to take your family to the movies, and have popcorn and refreshments, really means a lot to a lot of people.” For teens, there are events such as Teen Leadership Workshops and the well-attended Teen Nights on Washington Island – the local staff’s response to youths’ need for safe, positive fun. These events have included a New Year’s Eve lock in, a trip to the Haunted Mansion in Brussels, even an “Island Idol” competition based on the popular TV show.
Family Centers’ parent programs touch families from all walks of life. The STAR parenting program is a six-week exploration of how to strengthen and nurture relationships. Throughout the process, Wautier has witnessed parents change the way they handle discipline with their children, deal with their own emotions, and show support to each other. At the end of a recent session, plans were made for the group to continue meeting at a local park so families could stay connected. One woman in the group said, “If more people would take this class, it could change our community.”
Wautier and her staff agree. This past summer, FCDC offered a parenting program geared specifically toward fathers, the Nurturing Fathers curriculum. “It came about because there’s been nothing out there for men to learn parenting in a positive way.” The program served five men who were incarcerated at the County Jail, but also included dads in the community at large. Wautier counts the program as another success. “For many [of these fathers], a true healing is taking place as they recognize their past mistakes and look toward the future with a new outlook.”
Programming for older adults fills an important need in the county as well. Gramma’s Mittens program includes seven women who, together, made 641 hand-knit items for school children throughout the county. Not only are these women keeping children’s hands warm, they are keeping their own hands busy, minds engaged, and social connections alive. Older Adult Socials provide a meal and a gathering place for seniors, where speakers and entertainers add another dimension of interest for attendees.
According to Justine Mancheski, Family Centers staff is always trying to “understand and wrap our arms around the gaps in our community.” One such gap that staff recently recognized was the lack of programming for single adults. In response, they developed a new program called “Friendship Fridays” geared toward singles who are looking for social events that are fun and relaxing. The program began in February with a fondue night event and will continue monthly through the summer.
Wautier and her staff are creative in their fundraising efforts as well. Since they receive no state or federal funding, Family Centers relies on United Way funds and local private foundation grants, as well as direct mail appeals and event fundraisers. The organization’s fundraisers aren’t black tie balls – rather, they extend the mission of the organization by offering programs that enrich and nurture as they bring in revenue. Wautier laughs and says she often asks herself, “Is this a program or a fundraiser?” And then answers, “It’s a family event that brings in revenue.” The docket of 2010 events include the well-known “Pampering and Practicalities” evening event geared toward women, the family-friendly Parade of Ponds, and the historically-minded Belgian Kermiss in Southern Door. The Kermiss, now entering its third year sponsored by the FCDC, is a centuries-old harvest festival brought to Door County by the Belgian settlers. Wautier explains that the Kermiss takes place every year on Grandparents’ Day as “a way for the older generation to share their traditions.” In addition to planning the event, Wautier led a class at NWTC on Belgian Pie Making, and baked 120 pies for the event along with a group of volunteers.
This year, Family Centers lost one important source of funding, the Child Abuse Prevention Fund, due simply to changes in the grant that shifted strictly toward in-home services. But Wautier and her staff are working hard to fill the funding gap with other sources. They know that their work strengthens family life, and thereby reduces family violence. “It’s very hard to measure,” says Wautier, “but we’ll continue to offer places to be in a positive atmosphere with friends and family…we know it helps relieve some of those stresses.”
Ultimately, Family Centers’ programs are all about strengthening the bonds that already join people in our close-knit county. After a Family Day event at the Maritime Museum, Suzanne Rose of Kolberg reflected, “It was such a pleasure to spend the afternoon, unrushed, with so many kids my daughter has grown-up with…and enjoy many activities with neighbors, friends and familiar faces from the county.” It’s the simple pleasures of community, family, and friendship that Family Centers of Door County understands and strives to bring to everyone, one event at a time.
Meet a Volunteer: Diane Jome
Diane Jome, a retired schoolteacher, serves as Treasurer of the Board of Directors at Family Centers of Door County. In the past two years, she has logged a total of 570 hours of service to the organization, including planning and managing the Older Adult Breakfast program. “A lot of these people are widows and widowers. It’s a wonderful thing to see them have others to be with, talk with, and laugh with.” Diane also appreciates how Family Centers programming always includes an educational aspect. When families visit the Southern Door Auditorium for movie night, children are instructed on theater etiquette before the fun begins. Diane believes that her work with the Family Centers is its own reward. Speaking of her experience working at the Children’s Christmas Stores, she says, “I can see the joy in their faces. When you see the little ones with their packages all wrapped up for their loved ones, they are just beaming!”
Photos courtesy of the Family Centers of Door County.
Katie Lott Schnorr lives in Southern Door County with her husband and two young daughters. She is a teacher in the Sturgeon Bay Public Schools. Aside from teaching and raising a family, poetry and jazz singing are her creative endeavors at present. She feels fortunate to live in such a beautiful place full of imaginative and passionate people.