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How ‘not in my backyard’ became a community touchstone

Bright colors and comfortable furniture reinforce the home-like atmosphere of The Women’s Community Inc. Shelter Facility in Wausau. (Photo submitted by The Women's Community Inc.)

The tracks of Jane Graham Jennings’ tears run through the city of Wausau.

From the old psych ward on North Seventh Street that previously served as a shelter for the battered women Jennings aids, to the doorstep of her organization’s new building at 3200 Hilltop Ave., Jennings shed tears of frustration, sorrow and, ultimately, joy in her fight to build a better refuge for the women and children who call The Women’s Community Inc. Shelter Facility home.

What left a lasting mark, however, are the tears shed in amazement.

Jennings’ tale started in 2008, at an idyllic property off Campus Drive, right near a residential area and the Robert W. Monk Gardens. Jennings, executive director of The Women’s Community, saw great potential at the site, where she and her team sought to build a larger, more comfortable shelter for those the organization serves, the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Before placing an offer on the property, she set up a neighborhood meeting to gauge the community’s acceptance of the plan.

“It is a residential area, and we need the folks we serve to feel part of a community,” Jennings said.

Fearing the shelter’s clients would attract violence to the area, the residents objected and eventually circulated a petition to persuade the City Council to reject rezoning at the site.

“That process started a very public debate, which was quite ugly,” Jennings said. “There was this warring line through the community that really took its toll.”

The Women’s Community considered halting the project, she said, when staff members started hearing from shelter residents devastated by the public reaction.

“These women already feel worthless, and they didn’t see any support from their community,” Jennings said.

Then, Aspirus Wausau Hospital announced it would donate 2 acres near a different residential area for the project.

“I sobbed when I got the call,” Jennings said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Residents near the new site had reservations, as well, but the project had a key supporter in Mayor James Tipple, who lives in the neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of ‘not in my backyard’ that happens on projects,” Tipple said. “But this shelter is a very important part of our community. I was always in support of it.”

Tipple helped appease a couple of neighbors’ concerns about property values and security, but the project still hinged on City Council approval. The day of the meeting, five women who had lived at the shelter asked to stand before the council and tell their traumatic stories.

“They had nothing to gain and everything to lose,” Jennings said. “By the time they finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.”

The council granted unanimous approval, and the organization moved forward with raising the money to build. In the midst of a recession, however, donations were hard to come by.

Then, Jennings got another call. An anonymous donor had stepped forward with $100,000 for the project.

“I was trying on clothes when I got the call,” Jennings said. “I remember standing in a dressing room, crying. I was so grateful.”

A $250,000 donation brought on subsequent tears of wonder and thanks, as the shelter closed in on its fundraising goal. By the time shovels broke ground in August 2011, The Women’s Community had all of the money needed to build the project.

“Looking back, it was a long road,” said Heather Stoffel, project manager with Miron Construction Co., which built the shelter. “There were times where you questioned your faith. But when you had a failure or a disappointment, there was always something that came along and kept you going.”

Though she shed many tears throughout the process, Jennings said, the memory of shelter residents’ reacting to their new home is the one that sticks with her most. Standing in front of a wall covered in donors’ names, two residents marveled at the amount of community support that made the project come to life.

“Tears (were) coming down their faces,” Jennings said. “They asked ‘Who are these people and why do they care?’ That wall showed there were 1,000 people that believe they have value.”

Caley Clinton is associate editor of The Daily Reporter, which hosts its annual Top Projects event on Thursday. Clinton helped select this year’s 30 winners, one of which is The Women’s Community Inc. Shelter Facility.

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