Blazing new paths for the homeless

Like its namesake, the Wildfire youth mission group spread through Superior and Douglas County last week, leaving finished projects in its wake. Youngsters from 14 church groups planted seeds, painted walls, cemented cracks, played with children,...

Left to right, Hope Certa-Werner and Tyler Oppel of Superior plant seeds in a community garden with Jenna Hutschenreuter and Brooklyn Lockington of La Crosse under the direction of Don Johnson of Superior beside Faith United Methodist Church Thursday. The community garden was one of many projects tackled by members of the Wildfire youth ministry group last week. Maria Lockwood /

Like its namesake, the Wildfire youth mission group spread through Superior and Douglas County last week, leaving finished projects in its wake. Youngsters from 14 church groups planted seeds, painted walls, cemented cracks, played with children, sided a trailer and began to breathe life into a vacant building.

"I've learned a lot of new things, like digging a pond and measuring windows," said Ashley Harrison, 14, of De Pere. "I have not done that before."

No matter how dirty the job, the workers found a bright side.

"People are doing this and still smiling and happy about it," said Barb Certa-Werner, executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters, a ministry of Faith United Methodist Church. "They're really joy-filled people."

Their goal of the youth mission, now in its 17th year, is to "pay it forward" by blessing others, said the Rev. Joel Certa-Werner of Faith United Methodist.


"We bless God back by helping those he loves," he said.

Superior High School senior Jeff Newman said he hasn't done a lot of volunteer work, and working with Wildfire for his senior project was eye-opening.

"It's definitely important to get out into the community. Even if you're not doing it for your religion or faith, it's still important to reach out to others," said Alyssa Watson, 13, of Green Bay, as she tackled dusty cabinets with pine cleaner Thursday.

Jenn Watson, youth leader of United Methodist New Hope of De Pere, saw friendships deepen in a faith-centered way during the week.

"The projects that they're doing are just wonderful and the fact that the kids can engage with the community is beautiful," she said.

Caring for the homeless

The mission group's timing was heaven-sent. The church purchased a five-unit apartment building at 1022 Harrison St., which Wildfire members helped clean during their stay. An initiative of Harbor House, it will become the first permanent supportive housing program in Wisconsin's five northern counties, Barb Certa-Werner said.

Currently, those who are homeless can access emergency shelter for up to 45 days or transitional living programs, which offer a 24-month stay.


There is no end date for permanent supportive housing. The residents, chronically homeless individuals, stay until they are ready to move ahead. That takes an average of three years, according to national statistics.

Residents must have income and pay rent to build a good rental history.

"The idea is to help teach self-sufficiency, and we can't do that if they're not working," Barb Certa-Werner said.

They will receive case management and life skills training and meet with a staff person weekly to help them become reconnected and reestablished in the community.

"That's a huge problem for the homeless is not feeling connected in the community because everybody thinks about it as their deficiencies rather than their strengths," Barb Certa-Werner said.

The apartment building has been vacant for a decade, but it's in a prime neighborhood to connect residents to the community.

"They're going to be my neighbors," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. "It's such a fantastic part of the city; it's an enfranchising place."

He said the apartment building is within walking distance of nearly every need --- food, entertainment, downtown businesses, job opportunities, city parks, faith communities and the bus line.


Faith United Methodist Church has raised enough money to purchase the building and fix the basement. Barb Certa-Werner estimated it will take up to $100,000 to pay for additional projects needed to make the space habitable again, including electrical, plumbing and cabinetry work as well as painting.

A general appeal for funds is ongoing, but Barb Certa-Werner said money must also be raised for other Harbor House programming.

In 2017, Harbor House Crisis Shelters provided 7,240 shelter nights to women and families through its emergency shelter program.Donations for the permanent supportive housing initiative are being taken at Faith United Methodist Church, 1531 Hughitt Ave., on Facebook and through the GoFundMe site under the "Superior Housing Challenge."

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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