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Carla’s vision of Grace Place (03/14/2004)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen." - Epistle to the Hebrews

Dreams of the heart can come true. It all began with Carla Burton's vision, followed by an anonymous donor. The exuberant, spirit-filled wife and mother of four, from ages 9 to 22, is a preschool and kindergarten learning teacher at Riverway Learning Community. She is the humble, dedicated catalyst of Grace Place.

The seed is planted. "I was down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of our Goodview home," Carla's story goes. "As I listened to the broadcast on Christian radio about Milwaukee's abortion clinics, it came to my awareness that the heated arguing between the pro-life and pro-choice people wasn't accomplishing anything. I was thinking, ‘God there has to be a better way to deal with this issue'." That was over ten years ago.

Carla's Vision: "Something was working on my heart, and I started praying. I knew that somehow I was to begin a ministry like Grace Place. I liked my life the way it was, preschool teacher and raising my children, but I couldn't shake that question." She was new to Winona, shy and introverted. Turning to her prayer group at the Redeemer Lutheran Church, she prayed for guidance, which gave her strength to speak to various church congregations to raise funds.

Silent Partners: Carla told me that, back then, she had a lot to overcome to even start to talk about her vision with anyone. "Then Gary and I wrote a letter to one national corporation, just one letter, and they generously responded," she went on. The donor told the couple to purchase any house in Winona, as their gift. Prayer and the family's move to the enchanting Grace Place house, on Franklin and Fifth, opened the door to Carla's dream.

Unwavering Faith: With nothing more than a few board members, and an eight bedroom house, Carla knew that the strength behind her aspirations was growing. "I knew intuitively something was going to happen and I knew I had to prepare for it. I knew it was to be some sort of holistic organization," she said. "The big move was a faith step for our family. We didn't think of any of the scary things. The faith is a gift. This is what I was supposed to do."

Young Women in Transition: Actively expanding for over ten years, Grace Place has blossomed into an outreaching, healing and supportive ministry. Carla Burton speaks reverently of the mission, "For the person who's looking for the Christian Connection - that's who we are." It began with the first pregnant, unwed girl who sought refuge at Grace Place, just three months after the Burtons had moved to the spacious house, before any plan was established.

The Heart of the Matter: Speaking of what Grace Place and its many volunteers offer the wayward girls who cross their threshold, Carla explains, "I believe in gentle education, in coming up alongside them and not making decisions and choices for them. We promote the sanctity of life, giving young unwed women carrying children a restful retreat place. We have to help women to become strong enough to make good decisions." Most of the girls passing through Grace Place have either kept their babies or put them up for adoption.

Mentors - One-On-One: It's not the kind of ministry where we're into numbers...it's more what we do than how much we do," Carla asserted. "Many of the volunteers are college students. We take the time to mentor one-on-one." For the past year Grace Place has not housed anyone. Girls once stayed from six months to one year. There are families in the community who are willing to provide a secure and nurturing family setting for the pregnant woman if she chooses. Thirteen is the maximum number of girls supported by the organization at one time.

The Brown Talking Stool: Grace Place sponsors a thrift store, next to Goltz Pharmacy. I first met the enthusiastic and cheery manager of "Market Square," Sharon Stangl, in a cubbyhole of an office, piled high with donated items. I sat on a dilapidated stool, as Sharon remarked, "That's there for anyone, of all ages, who drops in to vent or to visit." The store is a welcome mat of goodwill and charity in the community.

I learned that Grace Place, along with the moral support and prenatal guidance, helps the girls set up housekeeping, get back in school, find employment, learn to use a computer, and on and on.

The Voice of Experience: Yet another voice echoes through the glow of achievement. Ronna Walker, with the nonprofit organization for two years, now serves as Director of Grace Place. "I can honestly say I've been there," she candidly shared during our conversation. "I had an abusive marriage when I was very young and am a single mother today." Her personal challenges, and her training, created in Ronna a "passion to help other women."

The Future: Carla's conviction seems unwavering. "In the beginning, we knew we wanted it to be a family setting," she explained, "a ministry of reconciliation." The board, of which Carla is President, recently decided that the women needed more programming and more connection with family. "What we are seeking is one facility that can house the mentoring program, the store, and (yet another surprise!) what we call the ‘Mustard Seed Mission to Families'." That will include tutoring in a Montessori environment.

"If the mother hasn't received what she needs, how can she give?' Carla Burton, who radiates a deep understanding of human emotions, has been trained in an ennobling program named "Kindermusik," for the parents/family together with the child (from birth to seven years of age). By interacting, through music, movement, eye-contact, and singing, a healing grace can make its way.

"In the beginning, it was just me." "I was scared." "Step by step" "The faith is a gift." "The strong arm of God." "They're hurt, wounded." "I can't tell them what to do." "I want them to get the message early on how much Jesus loves them." Carla's words ring true in a world of uncertainty and distress.

It was that Bible verse she went back to: "If somebody is thirsty...give them a drink of water." The clay in the hand of the potter, one unworldly and insightful woman has unselfishly become a beacon on the road to fulfilling destinations.

Anyone interested in donating or volunteering time at Market Square, give Sharon Stangl a call at 454-1915. For programming and mentoring, Ronna Walker can be reached at 452-2283. Prayers are greatly appreciated. 


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