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Students from First Congregational-UCC, United Methodist and Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran churches and members of the Menomonie Area Mission Coalition assemble “welcome backpacks” Wednesday for the Wisconsin Foster Closet. The backpacks will be given to foster children in the Dunn County area.

Several Menomonie area churches have joined forces to help their communities, and the new group’s first project is targeting foster children in Dunn County.

The newly formed Menomonie Area Mission Coalition Wednesday assembled 63 “welcome backpacks,” which will help local children when they enter foster homes, said coalition member Becky Kneer.

Kneer, a parish nurse at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Menomonie, began the Menomonie Area Mission Coalition after learning about the Chippewa Falls coalition. That group of churches and faith communities spearheads several community projects each year.

Eight Dunn County churches formed the coalition in summer 2018 and met with community leaders for several months to decide where they were most needed, Kneer said.

One problem rose to the top: the rising need for foster-care resources in Dunn County.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Kneer said. “I think our eyes were all opened that there are a lot of needs we can help with.”

Providing the basics

Throughout the spring months, the eight churches collected toiletries, coloring books, blankets, stuffed animals and other items. Church members and students assembled the backpacks Wednesday in Menomonie.

The backpacks will be distributed by the Wisconsin Foster Closet, a Menomonie-based nonprofit that serves Dunn, Eau Claire, Chippewa, Barron and St. Croix counties.

The Foster Closet will give those 63 backpacks to foster care agencies — or hand them right to local foster families themselves, said Foster Closet founder and CEO Tammy Wood-Garr.

The number of Wisconsin children in foster care has “increased about 20 percent over the last year. There’s over 8,000 kids in foster care in Wisconsin alone,” Wood-Garr said.

For children entering foster care, sometimes a welcome backpack is their only possession, Wood-Garr said.

Children removed from their homes in child protective cases sometimes leave in the middle of the night, Kneer said. If drugs or violence are involved, “worst case, there’s not time to pack,” Wood-Garr said. “Sometimes the clothes they’re wearing, they can’t even keep those.”

On a mission

The Menomonie Area Mission Coalition is loosely knit, welcomes other churches to join and meets once each month.

“We keep it very layperson-led,” Kneer said. “It isn’t dependent on pastors leading it … there are a lot of lay people who are interested in being involved.”

Meetings are typically 5 to 6 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month, held at a different church each month.

For future projects, the coalition has met with the Dunn County Department of Human Services, the Menomonie school district and Stepping Stones of Dunn County.

“We know churches come from different theological backgrounds, but we’re finding the commonality between all of us, serving our neighbor and serving God,” Kneer said.

Churches in the Menomonie Area Mission Coalition are Peace Lutheran, Christ Lutheran, Our Savior’s Lutheran, Shepherd of the Hill Lutheran, St. Joseph’s Catholic, First Congregational-UCC, Menomonie United Methodist and Cedarbrook. Lutheran Campus Ministry also participates in the coalition.

Churches interested in joining the coalition can contact Kneer at 715-309-9065 or at becky.kneer@gmail.com.