Helping Services for Youth & Families celebrates 50 years of supporting communities

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Helping Services for Youth & Families Family Educator Heather Ward leads a Zumbini class, which is one of the organization’s family education and support resources. Family education and domestic violence advocacy are the two main services offered in Clayton County. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Helping Services for Youth & Families started as a crisis line in Decorah in 1973, when neighbors were worried about teens getting in trouble. The organization—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this spring—has expanded to eight northeast Iowa counties in the years since, but continues to address issues people care about by providing tools, resources and encouragement for community members.


“Our mission is to make the communities healthier and safer. We work with the communities on what issues need to be addressed and how we can make that happen,” said Ben Krouse-Gagne, director of community engagement for Helping Services for Youth & Families.


The organization’s pillar programs include youth mentoring; gambling, drug and alcohol use prevention education; family education; and domestic abuse advocacy.


In Clayton County specifically, only the latter two are currently offered due to funding, according to Krouse-Gagne.


Through domestic violence advocacy, trained advocates empower individuals and families to overcome the violence in their lives and become survivors. 


“We want the best outcome and the safest outcome for survivors, whether that’s working through the legal system, finding a place to live, finding a job or supporting a child. We also have a strong partnership with law enforcement,” Krouse-Gagne said.


A 24-hour resource line (800-383-2988) is available for those seeking support, and a live chat option was launched as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


“During COVID, the number of calls dropped. We were surprised,” Krouse-Gagne said. “But when you’re locked down with a partner, when do you have the opportunity to call? That’s why we launched the opportunity to chat live. Now people are reaching out by making that piece of it safer.”


Resources are available for stalking and teen dating violence as well. While these topics may not be talked about as often, they don’t just happen in more urban areas. They happen in northeast Iowa too, said Krouse-Gagne.


“Northeast Iowa is a great place to live and raise a family, but we have some of those issues too,” he added.


The stigma attached to domestic violence sometimes makes it difficult for those in need to reach out. But Krouse-Gagne said it has to be survivors who seek the services.


“We can try to get the info out there the best we can at the hospital, referrals from law enforcement, tear-off fliers. But we’re not forcing them to do anything. It’s up to them,” he added.


Another key Helping Services resource in Clayton County is family education and support. The organization works with expecting families and those with children up to age 3.


“We partner with you to make sure your child is hitting milestones so they can be successful later in life,” Krouse-Gagne explained. “We don’t replace a primary physician. It’s in addition to that.”


Services for individual families include car seat and child passenger safety checks, home safety checks, breast feeding support, infant/child weight checks and vision and hearing screenings. 


“We also do play groups and bring families together, which allows parents to talk to each other and feel like they’re not alone. People have similar struggles,” Krouse-Gagne said.


In addition to its own programs, Helping Services also partners with organizations to serve communities. 


“It’s not just about one piece. Drug use, domestic violence, mental health—it all ties together,” said Krouse-Gagne.


People are utilizing the services. According to the latest Helping Services annual report, which includes data from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, the organization’s Domestic Abuse Resource Center served 206 new victims within its coverage area that fiscal year. There were just over 1,500 resource line calls and chats.


Family education and support services in Allamakee, Clayton, Howard and Winneshiek counties aided 57 families 106 children. Staff made 336 home visits and another 41 visits virtually, in addition to leading 13 play groups.


Over 50 years, that amounts to thousands and thousands of people, said Krouse-Gagne.


“We may have worked with a friend, neighbor or family member,” he shared. “In some communities, work is not as visible. A lot is done confidentially. But we’re still doing the work to make the communities safer and healthier, to listen and respond.”


How can people help the Helping Services mission? According to Krouse-Gagne, awareness is key. Let others know services are available, share Helping Services social media posts or bring staff in to speak to a group. Volunteers are also welcome. 


Monetary and item donations help the mission too. Helping Services for Youth & Families is a 501(c)3 private nonprofit and receive state and federal grants, that is only a partial source of income. The organization also receives various community grants and donations from churches, local organizations and businesses and through its annual Holiday Lights fundraiser.


“Let us know what could be done in the community—what role Helping Services could play. We’re here for you and look forward to making the community stronger,” Krouse-Gagne said.


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