Stillwater nonprofit FamilyMeans celebrates 60: What they do
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.
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.
Q: What does the process entail?
A: They come in, and they sit down with a financial counselor and really sort out where they’re at – from how much income do you have on a monthly basis to what are your expenses going out? Honestly, most people who come in have more going out than they do have coming in, so the first thing we talk about is: Are there areas in your budget that you can make adjustments or reductions to get that back into balance? About 25 percent of the people who come to see us have debts that mounted to a point – it’s mainly credit cards, student loans, collection bills – where we will put them into a debt-management program, and then we negotiate with the creditors on their behalf to lower interest, get rid of late fees, over-limit fees, things like that. The client makes a deposit once a month to us, and then we send that money out to their creditors. It’s a completely voluntary thing.
Q: How do clients know to come in?
A: Most of it is word of mouth. Over the years, our largest referral sources have been other social-service agencies, the counties, creditors themselves. Big creditors will make referrals to us saying, “Hey, you know, you’re starting to miss quite a few payments, you might want to get some help,” and so refer to us.
Q: Are most of the clients here locally?
A: We have clients who are down in Madison, as an example, and some are all the way up in Bemidji. We also have clients in Georgia and Florida, two states that happen to have higher use of credit. We expanded there because there are a lot of people there, and part of that was to stabilize our credit-counseling programs so that we can continue to serve the communities here.
Q: Interesting. Because you didn’t have the numbers here?
A: Minnesota and Wisconsin tend to be a bit more conservative in their credit use.
Q: Or are we just better about paying off our credit cards?
A: It’s all kind of part of that picture. Florida and Georgia have much larger population bases than here.
Q: Your organization relies heavily on volunteers, especially in your work with caregiving and aging. How did the pandemic affect that program?
A: We actually saw the need for volunteers go down a bit because, as you can imagine, care receivers/caregivers were trying to be safe, and so they weren’t letting volunteers come in to be with their loved ones. Plus, volunteers were apprehensive to volunteer, so one of the challenges has been recruiting volunteers post-pandemic, and, honestly, now we’re starting to finally see people coming back.
Q: How does it work?
A: Volunteers come in and spend time with your loved one, so that you can go out and do things that you otherwise couldn’t. Being a caregiver is a 24/7 job, and to get that respite is really important. Unfortunately, a lot of those volunteers went away, and many are not coming back. They either volunteered elsewhere, or maybe chose to do other things in their lives, so that service is actually seeing a resurgence of people wanting volunteers to come in and provide respite for them. The challenge is finding folks in the community who we can train and then pair up with the folks. Creating a relationship and doing long-term volunteering, that’s a challenge these days because many people who are wanting to volunteer are really wanting to volunteer in kind of that one-time shot: I’m going to go here and work for four hours, and then I want to move on.
Q: What kind of commitment is required?
A: We ask folks who are doing the respite care to sign up for once a week, up to four hours a week. We also do group respite, which is actually our Day Out program on Fridays. People can drop off their loved ones, and we do group activities.
Q: When you’re telling the story of Family Means, what are you most proud of?
A: I’m most proud of the longevity of the organization. The world has changed over the years, but we’ve held strong, and the reason that we have is that we offer services that are truly needed by people. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be around and being used and we would spin them off and do something that really is needed. We hear it all the time: We’re the best-kept secret though we try to get the message out the best we can. There’s not a single service that we offer that anybody, if they sat back and honestly looked at their life, would say that, at some point, they could have used some help in every area. Maybe when you’re younger, you struggle financially; maybe you’re in a position now where you have a parent who is aging and you could use the services.
Q: How are you funded?
A: The United Way is a big supporter. We also write grant applications to different sources and, of course, individual donations. Mental-health counseling, as you can imagine — a big source of revenue for that is being able to bill your insurance, but there’s certainly a percentage of the world that doesn’t have insurance or have high deductibles, which is a really big thing these days. Credit counseling or financial solutions — we don’t charge for any of the counseling. If you go on to a debt-management program, we do have a monthly fee that they pay, but the cost savings that the clients are receiving are well over that. We get donations from creditors in some cases, but in many cases, we don’t. In caregiving and aging, we are starting to charge a few fees where we can, but that’s almost 100-percent grant-funded. For mental health, it’s a sliding scale, and the rest of the programs, we either do or we just don’t charge fees.
Q: The idea is if you need help, you’ll get help, and we’ll figure out a way.
FamilyMeans open house
FamilyMeans will celebrate its 60th anniversary Wednesday with a free open house.
The event will be held 4 to 7 p.m. at 1875 Northwestern Ave S. in Stillwater.
It will feature tours, live music, children’s activities and free ice cream.
For more information, go to familymeans.org.