It all started when Carla Burton felt a burden to help a young single mother with nowhere to go. She knew she had to do something for her and others like her, and so Grace Place was born. It began with a shelter in Winona over 25 years ago. The shelter has since been closed, but Grace Place lives on, providing mentoring, early childhood programs, and help to families across Fillmore and Winona Counties. Sixty percent of its support comes from its associated thrift store.
As Grace Place grew and the word spread, Burton found herself giving talks at area churches and other organizations explaining the mission of Grace Place and various ways that people could help keep it going. On numerous occasions, people would approach her afterwards and ask if there were any plans to expand to another area. “I said I had enough to do with Grace Place in Winona,” she laughed. Burton, who has a degree in early childhood education, was staying busy with the ministry’s thrift store, mentoring, and the parent and child programs that were offered.
But then, during one of the mission’s meetings, a volunteer asked her once again about expanding to a new location. “It just clicked,” she said. It was time to start looking for a building to rent in Rushford where a thrift store could be established. The Grace Place board gave her a limit of $500 rent a month. Burton found the perfect place and asked the owner how much rent was. It was over $500, so reluctantly she told him that she’d have to pass as it was more than the ministry could afford. “And he said, ‘Well, how about free?’” she laughed. Burton was blown away by the generosity and couldn’t wait to get back to the board with the news. With that taken care of, they moved ahead with their plans to open a second Grace Place in Rushford in 2011.
The night of the informational meeting in Rushford to discuss the expansion of Grace Place and its role in the community, there was a snowstorm. Burton debated not going as she didn’t think people would want to venture out in the snow, but decided to brave the drive from Winona anyway. It was a good thing she did. “Twenty-five people showed up for the meeting!” she recalled.
A business student from Winona State University who was interning full-time with Grace Place was instrumental in helping to open and set up the thrift store in Rushford. Burton was amazed at how everything seemed to fall into place. “I’m a person of faith, and I’ve watched this ministry unfold just like that,” she said.
Burton applied for and received a grant from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, or SMIF, to help support the morning music program for children and their parents in Rushford. The foundation helped to create a learning area for the program in the thrift store building, but space was still an issue. To operate fully, another building would need to be rented for Grace Place in Rushford. Burton wrote another application for a grant from the Arlin Falck Foundation and received it. Between the grant and a gift from the Pleasant Valley Free Church in Winona, Grace Place was able to expand to a second building in Rushford, less than a block from the thrift store.
Grace Place operates with a whole family approach, providing long-term social and emotional support. It offers individual and group mentoring, early childhood music classes, weekly “Breaking Bread” family style meals for those involved with the Grace Place community, the Gifts of Grace free shelf where families are given 10 points a month to spend on items such as household goods, diapers, etc, and select up to six items a month per family member from the thrift store, small benevolence gifts for families in need of one-time help paying a bill, and more.
The goal of Grace Place is that families will learn to live spiritually wholesome, healthy, and productive lives that will allow them and the community as a whole to thrive. The ministry helps families to learn good life skills, practice stability and self-discipline, and learn about the love of God. “We believe that the parent is the child’s first teacher, and we want to honor and support that,” Burton stated. “The only thing we don’t have right now is housing, but we want to be able to do that someday too.”
Grace Place often partners with other organizations and agencies, working with volunteer services, human service departments within social services, and even the court system. Individuals who have been sentenced to community service can work it out at Grace Place. “We have people here who are willing to mentor them in our core values,” Burton noted. “We can also give them job references.”
In addition to working with families from all over Fillmore and Winona Counties, Grace Place also serves the Rushford and Winona communities with its thrift stores. They provide a place for people to recycle clothes, household goods, and other things that they don’t want anymore. “We recycle all of it one way or another,” Burton said. If it’s something that can’t be sold in the thrift store, it’s sent to NP Community in Rochester. “They take the things that we can’t use and get them to people who can,” she explained. Items such as shoes, clothing, toys, etc. are also sent along with people who are taking missions trips around the world.
Grace Place is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that operates independently. Although the mission’s core values are based on Biblical principles, it is not affiliated with a specific church. Around 40 churches help to support the ministry in various ways.
Grace Place is primarily staffed by volunteers, with approximately 30 regular volunteers working at the Winona location and 20 in Rushford. About three interns a year from local colleges also work with the mission. “That’s a lot of young people getting introduced to social entrepreneurship,” Burton pointed out. She has even been invited to speak on that subject many times at Winona State. Recently, a group of students from Winona State University put together a video on the Rushford Grace Place, which can be viewed on the Grace Place website at graceplaceinc.org. “They did an outstanding job,” she commented.
Burton would like to see Grace Place continue to grow and thrive. Right now, not all of the programs offered in Winona are available in Rushford, but she’s hopeful that that will change soon. She’s also open to the possibility of expanding to other locations to be able to help more people and communities. “Transportation is one of the biggest obstacles for families in rural areas,” she explained.
The Rushford Grace Place center is open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday through Friday for programs and families in need. In addition to donations of gently used household items for the thrift store, they also have a need for donations of personal items such as shampoo, soap, diapers, wipes, toilet paper, dish soap, and other things for the Gifts of Grace free shelf. For more information, call Rushford Grace Place at (407) 864-2321 or the Winona Grace Place at (507) 452-2283.