Kids of all ages laughed and danced as Grace Place founder and director Carla Burton (left) led families in song during a “Morning Music” session.
by LAURA HAYES
Grace Place made Christmas happen for the Stevens family. One year, Tara Stevens said the family was at a low point — they had to downsize from a house, Tara didn’t have a job, and her husband was on disability after a train ran over his foot.
Stevens received a call from Grace Place founder and director Carla Burton, who said the nonprofit had just received some donations. “When I came in, there were totes of wrapped presents, not just for my kids but for my husband and I as well,” she recalled. The bags were filled with toys for the kids, clothes, and winter coats. “She’s really gone above the call of duty. I know I’m not the only family that she’s helped,” Stevens said.
Twenty-five years ago, Burton founded Grace Place. In November, Grace Place staff will hold a celebration in honor of the organization’s 25th anniversary.
Burton was working as a preschool teacher at Redeemer Lutheran Preschool. One day, she was cleaning her house and listening to a radio report about riots outside abortion clinics. She prayed, asking if there was something she could do. Burton woke one morning with the vision of a shelter for women.
Burton reached out to a corporation that supports faith-based organizations. Leaders there told Burton to pick a house to shelter Grace Place, and by Thanksgiving, Grace Place had closed on a house on Fifth and Franklin streets. By spring, the first girl arrived, and she estimated that the organization provided a shelter and support for around 50 pregnant women a year.
After 10 years, Burton’s vision of the nonprofit morphed. “We wanted to do more than just give pregnant teens a shelter for nine months. We wanted to actually change their lives and work with them more,” she said.
The organization sold the house, moved to East Second Street, and expanded the services it offered. Burton explained that organizers wanted to help community members create their own shelters by providing clothing at the thrift shop, toiletries at the free shelf, and love and support in its group programs.
“When you’re going through stuff like that, you’re hanging on by a thread. To go to one more agency and fill out one more form … but with love and emotional support, there’s a greater success rate,” Burton said.
Over the years, Burton said the nonprofit has slowly grown, and she estimates that around 2,000 people visit Grace Place stores in Winona and Rushford each month and around 300 families attend the group programs. Grace Place programs often integrate religion, music, education and movement while also providing support and mentorship for caregivers. Music, Burton said, is essential for a child’s brain development.
For years, most of Grace Place’s programs were housed in its location on East Second Street, but Grace Place has recently expanded to both Trempealeau and Rushford. Several years ago, some families from Trempealeau began attending Grace Place’s “Evening Song” program designed to provide quiet time for caregivers and babies at the end of the day, and recently, Burton started offering programs in Trempealeau.
People frequently asked Burton if she would consider opening a second location, but it wasn’t until the 2007 flood that devastated communities throughout Southeast Minnesota that Burton actually considered it. Grace Place’s Board of Directors, concerned about the cost to open a new location, told Burton that the monthly rent couldn’t be over $500. She sent a volunteer to Rushford to look for locations.
One open space was on West Jessie Street. Burton called the landlord who told her rent was about $600 a month. She responded that she couldn’t go over $500. “How about free?” she recalled the man responding. When she presented the offer at the board meeting, the board of directors, which Burton said had been expecting the expansion to go over budget, were surprised, nodded their heads, and said, “Free is good.”
Families who come to Grace Place often face hardships. Stacy Norris’ family is one of many who have benefited from Grace Place. Norris was looking for a safe place to move her family and decided to come to Winona. “We came with nothing except our meds — no clothes, no necessities, no silverware, nothing,” she recalled. Someone suggested that Norris call Grace Place. At first she was nervous, but then agreed to let Burton come to her house. Burton helped connect her with mentors and volunteering opportunities. Her life changed when she came to Grace Place, Norris said. “[Carla] showed me what love looked like and through love, you can forgive,” Norris said.
Burton has seen families change while they attend Grace Place programs. Volunteers are intergenerational. “There’s a great base of mentoring going on … They’re getting mentored by a community,” Burton said.
Burton does the Lord’s work, Stevens said. Stevens has undergone a number of hardships — poverty, addiction, abusive relationships. “She’s helped me re-establish my faith and understand how God works,” Stevens said. When she recently returned to Winona, she said she was in "rough shape." Burton opened her door and offered Stevens a job. “Grace Place has been a staple of this town,” Stevens said.
Over the years, Grace Place staff have seen a number of miracles. One of Burton’s favorite stories is about a wedding dress. A bride decided to change the colors of her wedding dress and donated her previously-purchased dress to Grace Place. However, she didn’t want the dress to be sold, but for it to be set aside for someone who needed it. Staff put it in a box on a shelf and told every cashier about the dress.
One day, a bride came in looking for a wedding dress. She asked the cashier if they had any dresses. The cashier initially said no, but then remembered the dress on the shelf. “What are the chances that dress would fit? … They take the dress out of the box and the lady puts it on and it fits perfectly,” Burton said. By chance, there was a pair of white shoes in the woman’s size, too. “[The cashier] was able to say, ‘There’s no cost,’” Burton said.
These miracles tell Burton that this is what she’s meant to do with her life. “It’s a family for those who don’t have families,” she said.
On November 3 and 4, Grace Place will hold celebrations in honor of its anniversary. The community is welcome to visit Grace Place on November 3 at 9 a.m. and on November 4 at 10 a.m.