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River Haven's new executive director 'has the energy we need'
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River Haven's new executive director 'has the energy we need'

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Nothing’s more rewarding than supporting your own community, according to the new director of the River Haven homeless shelter.

“We’re your neighbors,” Amy Luebke said of the nonprofit organization that currently houses seven people at the men’s shelter and six people at the family shelter in Portage. “I want people to know that when you support us, you’re supporting your community.”

River Haven’s board of directors hired Luebke in June to replace Raquel Schwanbeck who left River Haven recently for health reasons.

Luebke, who starts as the new director Monday, spent the past five years as a parent educator supervisor with Renewal Unlimited Inc. in Portage and previously spent several years as a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in the Wisconsin Dells and Portage school districts and as a social worker in Columbia County.

“Amy and the Board of Directors at River Haven will work hand in hand to continue working on already established processes,” Chairman Dave Hankins said in an email. “Amy’s past experience will bring a new set of eyes to continue working on our goals.”

At Renewal Unlimited, Luebke supervised parent educators who enter the homes of low-income families in the region to help parents with their parenting skills, which, in turn, helps young children to reach educational milestones before they enter a school system.

“For most of my life, I’ve tried to serve the greater good,” Luebke said. “It’s never been about a paycheck for me or the status of working for some big corporation. I’m looking forward to making my mark on the community. In this new position, I see myself hopefully becoming a real community leader, helping residents to see the good in River Haven and the benefits of having River Haven.”

Luebke arrives with a good understanding of the organization because Renewal Unlimited writes many of the grants for the shelter, River Haven’s treasurer Tracy Cooper said.

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Renewal also provides rent assistance for River Haven residents when they find a permanent residence.

“She has so much experience working in this area already and she has the energy we need,” Cooper said. “Everybody really liked her enthusiasm.”

Fundraising for River Haven under Luebke’s leadership will be especially important after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of several events beginning in the spring of 2020, staffer Pete Bartaczewicz said.

Individual and corporate donations have been down for the past year and a half, but Bartaczewicz is optimistic that donations will increase as more events are held and more people return to work, hopefully improving their respective financial situations.

River Haven — which is now registering residents and local businesses for a golf scramble Sept. 25 at Portage Country Club — has remained operational throughout the pandemic even while undergoing renovation to its family shelter bathrooms, Bartaczewicz said. Earlier in the pandemic, some River Haven residents contracted COVID-19 and Bartaczewicz also dealt with the disease in November.

“I developed pneumonia and thought I was going to die,” Bartaczewicz said, adding River Haven strongly encourages but does not require COVID-19 vaccinations for residents.

Despite challenges related to the pandemic, River Haven is still finding employment for its residents, thanks, in large part, to the relationships it has built through the years with several area businesses, including Lifekeepers Inc. in Portage and Poynette Ironworks, Bartaczewicz said.

“Jobs aren’t the problem; the housing is,” Bartaczewicz said. “We have a lack of affordable housing for people right now and it’s a big struggle. But it’s easier to find (housing) if you have a job. Nine times out of 10, the person who has a job will get the apartment over someone who does not.”

Ultimately, River Haven is an organization that addresses the issue of homelessness at a “grassroots level,” Luebke said.

“It’s just easier to combat homelessness as a community, rather than relying on the government to do it for us,” she said. “Many families are one or two paychecks from homelessness, and River Haven is a resource that helps to keep them off the streets. Everybody in the community benefits from that. Everybody deserves the dignity of having shelter.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

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