WATERTOWN — Out of a local family’s grief came the possibility for great joy.
Six years ago, Sue Trepte and her husband, John, lost their middle child, Phil, who was then 24. In the wake of their loss, John told Sue he could not continue to live in the house where they’d made their home for almost three decades and where they are raised all their children.
For him, the memories were just too painful and he needed a new start.
Still dealing with grief herself, but believing that everything happens for a reason, Sue prayed about it.
So it happened that she and her husband, at a time when other couples their age were downsizing, moved to a much larger house.
“Our old home was sold in two weeks,” she said. “This home was on the market for just one day before we bought it.”
Trepte can’t help but see a divine plan behind the move that put her on the path to opening a shelter for homeless and abused women in her own home.
Trepte’s Haus of Peace is the lone women’s shelter in Jefferson County and the only facility of its kind in the state.
The women and children who stay with the Treptes are treated not as “residents” or “clients,” but as guests.
The shelter opened three years ago and immediately was at full capacity.
Since November 2016, it has served 57 women and 21 children, with a 90-percent success rate in terms of the women gaining employment and a permanent residence, Trepte said.
“There was nothing in the county before this to serve homeless and abused women and children,” Trepte said.
In fact, Haus of Peace serves a larger area than Jefferson County, regularly receiving calls from as far away as Janesville, Green Bay and Madison.
Guests at the Haus of Peace stay cost-free for 30 days. Some are able to gain independence in less time, while a couple have stayed a tad longer while waiting for an apartment they have rented to be made ready.
Trepte reports to her board of directors every week on every woman’s progress toward goals.
The Treptes have been married 40 years. They raised three children of their own. Their oldest is a therapist in Oconomowoc. Phil passed away six years ago. Their youngest just turned 27.
They also housed numerous foster children over the years.
Sue Trepte said she sees her current work with homeless/abused women as similar, as she helps the women recover from the trauma that sent them there and work toward independence.
Haus of Peace has room for three women, two children and two infants at a time.
The Treptes serve as “innkeepers” for the Haus of Peace, making sure their guests’ nutrition, medical and other needs are met.
“Sometimes they come in with just the clothes on their backs,” Trepte said of their guests.
The facility is supported almost entirely through donations and grants, with a strong backing from area churches and ministries.
“When we have a need, we put out an email, and within hours, that need is usually met,” she said.
Referrals usually come through area churches or police departments, or via organizations such as People Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse, People Against a Violent Environment or the Community Action Coalition.
“When I get a phone inquiry, I have 24 hours to set up an appointment to meet the individual,” Trepte said.
Trepte is joined in this initial interview by a member of The Haus of Peace Board of Directors, who provides an additional set of eyes and ears to determine whether that individual is a good fit for the Watertown shelter.
Trepte noted that Haus of Peace is not equipped to deal with individuals struggling with addiction or serious mental health issues.
“I’m just a retired school lunch lady,” she said.
About 70 percent of the women served by Haus of Peace come from abusive backgrounds, and many have been dominated by men who have kept them dependent, so they arrive at the Watertown shelter with few tools for independent living.
They don’t usually have cars, and many don’t even have a driver’s license. They don’t have jobs and might have been actively discouraged from working by their abusive partner.
“When they finally decide to break away, they’re so emotionally distraught they don’t know what to do,” Trepte said.
“Almost everyone who’s a guest here is dealing with some sort of trauma, even the kids,” said Kristal Nugent, an assistant at the home.
“When they come to the Haus of Peace, women are expected to meet certain goals,” Trepte said. “By the end of the first week, they are working at a job or doing community service 20 hours a week.”
In the meantime, Trepte and her team work to set up the women and their children with whatever resources they might need.
“We make sure they’re on Badger Care and food stamps,” Trepte said. “We work with Mary’s Room and Lake Country Caring to make sure they have the clothing and other items they need.”
They also arrange for the women to have counseling and free medical, dental and vision exams to make sure all of their physical needs are addressed right away.
Guests are asked if there’s a particular church with which they’d like to reconnect. Trepte reported that 98 percent do want to be part of a worship community, and that all of the area churches are great at supplying liaisons to welcome the women.
“Spiritual support is important when you’re dealing with so much stress and rejection,” Trepte said.
While at the Haus of Peace, the women work on independent living skills such as budgeting and cooking.
Many of them had no positive female role model or were raised “in the system” of foster care without permanent family supports, Trepte said.
As the women graduate to independence and community living, Haus of Peace works to connect them with other community resources to assure the women and their families have what they need.
Assisting in this process are the local food pantry; Watertown’s free laundry program for the needy; the personal essentials program; the backpack program for area students, coordinated by area churches; the free lunch in the park program in the summer; the Watertown Area Cares Free Clinic; and more.
“We are fortunate to have an excellent public Health Department in town as well,” Trepte said.
While there are numerous charities and agencies assisting this population, the lack of affordable housing/emerging housing in the area continues to be a challenge, Trepte said.
Another major challenge for people just attaining independence is the lack of affordable transportation. Watertown does have a cab service, but it’s not affordable to those with no or a very limited income.
Trepte said she knows a woman who lives on Boughton Street who walks all of the way to the old high school where her young child receives day care, then walks to the Piggly Wiggly to work, then walks back to the old high school to pick up her son, then walks home — every day.
For those who stay at Haus of Peace who do not have a driver’s license, Trepte downloads the driver’s education manual from the state for women to study and they work to pass the written driving test in two weeks.
Volunteers still are needed to accompany the women on test drives while they seek their licenses.
In the meantime, the responsibility of making sure the women get to their jobs, appointments and other places has fallen to Haus of Peace volunteers.
“That’s one of the main things I do,” said Kristal Nugent, assistant at Haus of Peace.
“Ninety percent of the women we serve have no car, not even a driver’s license,” Nugent said. “One woman’s son was at Rogers Memorial Hospital and she had no way to visit him.”
Right now, Haus of Peace is working to raise $20,000 to purchase a nine-passenger van so it can transport more women at one time. To assist in the fundraising process, Trepte and Nugent both have undergone training in grant-writing.
Trepte said that as need in the area remains great, Haus of Peace board members are working to create more options for homeless and abused women.
In fact, a member of the board recently closed on a house elsewhere in Watertown that she intends to turn into a second shelter for women and children.
The large home, with 3,300 square feet of space, will need to be renovated before it can serve in that capacity, so there’s no definite timeline as to when that second shelter would open.
“When we put the Haus of Peace together, we felt the process could be duplicated elsewhere,” Trepte said. “What it takes is empathy, compassion and a heart to work with those who are lost.
Trepte said that there are a lot of misconceptions about the homeless, with the stereotype being that they just want to “mooch off” of others.
“There are always circumstances involved,” Trepte said. “We have to put aside our judgments and see them all as God’s children who need short-term help.”
“We are loving other people and accepting them exactly where they are,” Nugent said.
Trepte and Nugent said that working with homeless and abused women can be demanding and high-stress.
Haus of Peace is on call 24 hours a day and works with people in crisis.
“We take it a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time,” Trepte said.
Still, being able to make such a difference in people’s lives is incredibly rewarding, Trepte said. She told of a guest she hosted in 2016 who has kept in touch all this time and recently called with the joyous news that she was getting married.
“We are not doing this in vain,” Trepte said.
Haus of Peace has created a video to spread the word about the work the shelter does. On it, a couple of past guests share their comments, if not their names.
One of them, a young woman with short, cherry-red hair, talked about being evicted and wondering what she was going to do next.
Another woman, older and with long blond hair, said that it was very difficult living from day-to-day wondering how she was going to make it.
“Every day before (the Haus of Peace) was dark and dreary. I feel like I can see color now,” the young woman said. “Honestly, it’s just, like, brighter.”
How to help
There are several ways people can help Haus of Peace. The home always is collecting clothing, personal hygiene items, bedding and kitchen essentials and household cleaning products.
Trepte noted that when they graduate from the shelter, women are sent off with the basics they will need to set up an apartment. Those include kitchen items like a used microwave, a coffeepot and dishes, as well as a new bed and new bedding.
Haus of Peace also welcomes monetary donations.
People can get in touch with Haus of Peace through its website: hausofpeacewi.com. It also has a Facebook page.
Haus of Peace has some big fundraisers coming up to raise money for general operations, as well as big expenses like the van.
The first, on Thursday, Nov. 14, is a dinner and performance at Watertown Players Theater in conjunction with the woman-empowering show “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”
In January, another fundraiser is being planned at the Elks Lodge ballroom, featuring the 18-piece Main Street Big Band.