Stillwater nonprofit FamilyMeans celebrates 60: What they do

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When a New Richmond, Wis., couple found themselves more than $100,000 in debt a few years ago, they turned to FamilyMeans for help.

The Stillwater-based nonprofit, celebrating its 60th anniversary this month, counsels individuals, couples and families, and provides consumer credit-counseling services, caregiver support and youth development programs.

Jim Kroening, president of of FamilyMeans in Stillwater. (Courtesy of FamilyMeans)

In the case of the New Richmond couple, who owed $89,000 to 11 credit card companies and about $20,000 to other creditors, FamilyMeans’ consumer credit counselors were able to set them up on a repayment plan that they followed to a T, said Jim Kroening, the organization’s president.

The couple didn’t go into debt taking lavish vacations or buying expensive cars; it was an accumulation of “life expenses” and medical bills, Kroening said. “A lot of it was housing repairs – replacing roofs and furnaces and AC units. They came in thinking that there was no way they were going to avoid bankruptcy, and we actually put them on a plan, and I think it was a little less than five years, they had paid all of their debt.”

FamilyMeans serves almost 12,000 clients a year and has an annual budget of $4.5 million. It employs more than 65 people and has more than 130 volunteers. It serves people throughout the east metro area, eastern Minnesota and west-central Wisconsin, and has service locations in Stillwater, St. Paul, Hudson, Eau Claire and elsewhere.

The organization’s youth development program offers free, accessible out-of-school programming for K-12 students, including post-secondary preparation, in the communities of Cimarron and Landfall.

It also operates the Center for Grief & Loss on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

Kroening, who has been with FamilyMeans since 1992, was named president in 2020. He previously served as director of operations and financial solutions, overseeing agency operations, including risk management, information technology and facility management. Prior to joining FamilyMeans, he worked at TCF Bank in Minneapolis as an assistant branch manager.

Kroening, 56, took over as head of the organization from longtime Family Means president Arba-Della Beck; she died in 2021. He is the fifth president since the agency was founded in 1963.

He grew up in Stillwater and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a certificate in executive leadership from University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School of Social Work.

He is an avid outdoorsman, runner and golfer, volunteers with Standing Cedars Community Land Trust and has served on the boards of Stillwater Lions Club and Two Rivers Community Land Trust.

He and his wife, Amy, have three adult children and live in Stillwater.

Kroening spoke last week with the Pioneer Press about the future of the organization, the challenge of recruiting volunteers post-COVID and credit card usage in Georgia and Florida. The transcript is edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: FamilyMeans’ mission is to strengthen communities by helping individuals and families through challenges in all life stages. Can you tell me more about what services you provide?

A: We provide support through four primary service areas: counseling and therapy, caregiving and aging, financial solutions and youth development. We are often regarded as the region’s “best-kept secret,” an agency that you don’t know about until you are in desperate need of support. We are aiming to change that by connecting with individuals and families before they are in crisis.

Q: Family Means is celebrating 60 years in business. That’s quite a milestone.

A: It really is. In the early 1960s, the United Way identified a gap in family social-service providers in the St. Croix Valley. A survey was conducted to determine what community supports were needed most. Rising to the top of this list was marital strain, financial burdens and child development. In 1963, Family Service of the St. Croix Area was established. We became FamilyMeans in 1999.

Q: Where are you seeing the most growth?

A: Through the pandemic, as we’ve all heard, the counseling and therapy needs have just gone through the roof. That’s not only in our outpatient clinics in Stillwater and St. Paul, but also in Hudson. We also have therapists in 16 schools in three school districts – that’s on both sides of the rivers, half around Wisconsin, half here in Minnesota. Each school has a different contract regarding the number of days that there is a therapist on site; some schools have a therapist in five days of the week, others only one, but, honestly, every school would like us to have more days.

Q: Are the students required to see a therapist, or do they sign up voluntarily?

A: It usually depends on what’s going on in their life, but a lot of times the school counselors will see that there’s something going on, so they’ll coordinate with our therapists and come in. We interviewed a young man a few years ago – he’s out of school now, but he talked about how basically (meeting with a Family Means therapist) saved his life. He was at a point where he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and he started meeting with one of our therapists. It’s really life-changing, you know.

Q: I’m curious what your therapists are mostly dealing with these days.

A: Marital counseling is huge. Depression, anxiety is really significant.

Q: Let’s talk about your work in financial services, particularly budget and debt counseling. What are those numbers like?

A: In the recession of 2008, 2009 and 2010, our numbers were really high, and then they actually declined post-recession, and now we’re starting to see a resurgence in that program. It’s because there’s lots of things that are coming together – lots of financial help, governmental help, has kind of ended, and student-loan repayment is starting up, so we’re actually gearing up and adding some staff to that program knowing that we are going to see an increase of folks that are in need there.

Q: It feels like you’re the harbinger of what is going on with the economy based on who’s calling for help.

A: Absolutely. What we do in that program is financial counseling, so we sit down with individuals and couples and basically help them to kind of sort out their finances. People are reaching out to us because they’re starting to fall behind on credit cards, utility bills, student-loan payments and things like that.

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