Wausau "300 homeless kids in Wausau? We can't have that. We have winter and 20 below," Mary Jo Freeman recalled saying after reading a local news story about how Blessings in a Backpack.
The realization of how prevalent that problem and the problem of runaway kids sparked an idea.
"It's a big problem, we need to prevent these things. We need to intervene and not have them happen," she said.
Now the president, she helped to start the nonprofit organization, Keep Area Teens Safe, or KATS. The group will provide shelter and resources to homeless and runaway kids ages 12-17 in Central Wisconsin.
The shelter and organization is modeled after others around the state, which Freeman says will help provide answers for different scenarios, like what to do when a pregnant teenager comes to the shelter, or navigating family dynamics.
The shelter will allow eight teens at a time stay for up to 30 days. Each teen will be paired with a case manager, have meals provided, and be connected to resources for both them and their family, all while providing a stable environment.
Just last week KATS closed on a home to make all of this a reality.
"There's a place they can hang their backpack, play some ping pong, you know, put their boots down in the winter and get something to eat, talk to somebody about their day," Freeman said. "We can teach them life skills like cooking, how to do their own laundry if they don't know that. If they've been homeless for a while, they maybe don't know how to do those things. We want them to become successful adults, ultimately."
As of April last year, Wausau School District alone had about 70 students who were considered homeless. The district along with many others in the area provide resources, such as food pantries, hygiene supplies, and clothing all on school grounds, but Angie Lloyd, director of pupil services for the district said they are always happy to add more resources to be able to offer students and families.
"It's really tough on students if they don't know where they're going to be that night and I think they feel some of the stress from their parents," she said. "You know, their parents are trying to make it the best they can and the kids feel that."
Students can admit themselves, go through their school, law enforcement, or social services. Many of the board members for KATS have experience working with children who are homeless, abused, or neglected.
KATS operates off of donations and, once the facility is up and running, grants as well. They are still in the process of fundraising and are working to furnish the home to make it welcoming for teens. They expect to open in 2020.