Support for single mothers
The old Washington School building will become the McKenzie Home
December 15, 2022
The first time Debra Moerke saw the old Washington Square building, she was part of the funeral procession for her five-year-old granddaughter.
Grieving the loss of little McKenzie to cancer, Moerke was in the line of cars making their way up 1st Street - a part of town she hadn't visited before. She raised her eyes and suddenly saw a historic brick building rising in front of her.
"It just overwhelmed me and it just took my breath away," Moerke remembered.
She asked her husband what the building was. He explained it was the old Washington Elementary school - the school his parents and many other relatives had attended when they were young.
For several months following the funeral, Moerke and her husband traveled to Green River from their home in Casper, visiting their daughter and her family who had lost their baby girl. Whenever they were in town, they went back to Washington Square.
"Every time I would go up there again I just fell in love with this building," Moerke said.
Only a few months later, not long after Christmas, Moerke got a call from her daughter one night with bad news - there had been a fire at the old school. Moerke felt personally devastated and heartbroken at the loss.
Although visits to Green River were more limited in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moerke still came when she could, and when she did she found herself going back to Washington Square. Somehow the loss of the building became connected to the loss of her granddaughter McKenzie in her mind, and the building itself kept weighing heavily on her soul.
"I literally pulled up alongside of the road and I wept," Moerke said.
Sitting outside the burnt structure, Moerke prayed and asked God what it was about this building that she was connected to and what He wanted her to do.
In 2021, the answer suddenly came to Moerke one night. She sat her husband down and told him: "I think I have this figured out. I understand what this building is supposed to be."
Moerke knew then that she needed to transform the old Washington School building into a transitional home for single mothers and their children.
The name of the new project will be "The McKenzie Home."
Moerke and her husband have lived in Casper for years, raising their six kids and helping take in over 140 foster children over the course of 18 years. Even during that time period, Moerke had the concept of wanting to create a program to support single mothers.
Moerke has spoken with heads of a variety of organizations that offer help to those who are struggling, and they have agreed that they often see a cycle repeating itself.
A woman finds herself pregnant, but doesn't have any support, so she goes out and looks for someone to support her and her child.
She usually finds "the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of places," Moerke explained. This can end with the woman experiencing abuse and neglect and not having any actual substantial support, which can lead to things like selling drugs and using drugs. These types of situations often end with the mother in prison and the child in foster care.
"This is a cycle that we just keep seeing over and over," Moerke explained.
This cycle is especially upsetting to Moerke since we live in a society that typically tries to come alongside and support people in need with groups, organizations, and programs.
"But the sad thing is that we keep addressing the symptoms, but we're not addressing it early enough to avoid it," Moerke explained.
Rehabilitation centers, safe houses, and foster care are all important systems, but Moerke would like to be able to help mothers and children before they get to that point.
"There are single women out there that all they need is a little help so that they don't make those wrong choices," Moerke said. "And those are the women that if we can help to protect them, give them the resources that they need and support them with a community . . . we can help them to be good, strong parents. We can help them to become independent and self-sustaining. If we could do that, would that not be an advantage to all of our communities?"
To accomplish her vision of helping single mothers, Moerke came up with the idea of turning the Washington Square building into the McKenzie Home.
The process of making this dream a reality began one year ago, the weekend of Thanksgiving, 2021, when Moerke and her husband came to Green River to meet with the current owner of the Washington Square building and his wife.
At the meeting, Moerke learned the owner had been leasing the building out for office space. When Moerke asked why he hadn't repaired it after the fire, the owner explained that he had been paying for insurance on the building for the 20 years he owned it, but he had been in the process of switching insurance companies when the fire broke out. He said if the building had been insured when it burned, he would have already repaired it and continued leasing the office space.
"So I smiled and said 'Well, maybe God has another plan for it. Maybe that's why this happened in that two-week period of time,'" Moerke said.
After she shared her vision for the building, the owner and his wife were on board. Moerke quickly set to work putting things in motion.
An advisory board has been formed with 15 board members and split into two parts, with eight members in Casper and seven members in Green River.
The McKenzie Home is officially established as a nonprofit and recently received its 501(c)(3) designation, and is now in the middle of a feasibility study. The project also has an attorney, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), an architect, and a contractor out of Salt Lake City, Utah, who has visited the building and confirmed he can restore it.
Unfortunately, restoring the building actually means tearing it down and rebuilding it. While Moerke was originally upset at this news, she realizes that it's the best way.
"We found out that we could save millions of dollars if we level the building, because trying to put new things into an old damaged building is just not going to work," Moerke explained.
The contractor has assured Moerke he can accurately recreate the historical building, even using the same bricks that were originally used in its construction.
While some have questioned the cost of restoring the building and completing the project, which is currently estimated at between $15 million and $19 million, Moerke stands by the decision. It was the Washington building itself that originally inspired the whole project, and the building is a local icon that she wants to restore and give new purpose to for the whole community.
The McKenzie Home
As plans for the McKenzie Home are gaining ground, Moerke has been working on what the home will be and how it will function to not only help single mothers but to benefit all of Green River and the state of Wyoming.
The property at Washington Square holds the original school building, which was built in the 1920s, another building built in the 1950s, and a breezeway connecting the two.
The plan is for the 1950s building to be the McKenzie Home itself, providing housing for single mothers and their children. While Moerke originally thought the building would only house about seven women, she has worked with the architect and they now have a layout for 24 rooms, each of which will be designed similar to hotel rooms.
It's important to Moerke to make sure the McKenzie Home truly feels like a home and that the women there truly feel loved, supported, and welcomed. To this end, she hopes to have each of the rooms "adopted" and furnished by community members and organizations so they feel more personal and not institutional.
The breezeway connecting the buildings will be an enclosed atrium-like space, providing a communal area for women to gather and children to play.
The school building itself will have multiple uses, not just for the women in the program but for the community as a whole. A large multi-purpose room that can be rented for events like receptions, luncheons, recitals and gatherings will be available. The basement will have a large kitchen and classroom space. And the school will once again provide office space that can be leased out to businesses and groups.
Moerke's goal is for the building to eventually be self-sustaining, bringing in money that will go directly back into maintaining the building and the program.
"We want the building to represent what we're trying to help these women accomplish," Moerke said, explaining a building that is strong, safe, independent and self-sustaining will help the women see how they can be the same.
The women in the program will be able to help maintain the building and work at the functions it is used for, giving them chances to earn money and learn new skills. The classroom space will also be used for classes and seminars that will be part of the program and help teach women skills like parenting, how to get a job, and more.
While the program for the women is still being developed, the plan is for the McKenzie Home to be a transitional place, giving single mothers support and resources.
"This can be for anywhere from a few months or perhaps up to two years depending on the needs," Moerke explained.
While homes for single mothers exist throughout the country, and Moerke has seen similar projects work successfully, nothing like this currently exists in the state of Wyoming. Somebody recently mentioned to Moerke that this is "an awfully big project for a small town."
"You have to have a building somewhere. Why not Green River?" Moerke said. "Green River is a very loving, safe, supportive community. I think it's one of the best places for these young mothers. And there will be resources from other areas of Wyoming. So it may be a big project, but it's not only here to serve Green River. It's serving the whole state and perhaps beyond."
Moerke has visited Green River to work on the project and share updates many times. Most recently, she presented the story behind the McKenzie Home and her plans for the future to the Sweetwater County Board of County Commissioners at the Dec. 6 meeting, and had two meetings at The Hitching Post for local board members and any community members interested in the project.
Moerke originally predicted it would take roughly three years to finish the first phase of the project. and she is still hoping to hold to that timeframe. The goal is to have a ribbon cutting on the McKenzie Home itself in the 1950s building by the end of 2024.
A personal project
For Moerke, the McKenzie Home is not only something she's wanted to do for a long time, but a project that is deeply personal and connected to her family and her life experiences.
One of her own daughters surprised them with a grandchild when she became pregnant at 16. Thankfully she had family support as she raised her child as a single mom for several years before she got married.
Another single mother came into Moerke's life through tragedy. One of Moerke's foster children was a young girl named Hannah whom the court returned to her abusive mother, despite Moerke's concerns for the child's safety. Within a year, the mother had taken her daughter's life. She is now spending her life in prison, but Moerke has developed a relationship with her, which she describes in her book "Murder, Motherhood, and Miraculous Grace."
When this single mother went to prison, she was five months pregnant with her eighth child. Not wanting the child to end up in foster care, she asked Moerke if her family would adopt the baby. They did, and the baby is their youngest daughter.
This same mother has told Moerke that she had no support for her and her children, and maybe if she'd had a resource like the McKenzie Home, she might not be in prison, and her daughter might still be alive.
Little McKenzie herself, who the project is named for, was born to a single mother and adopted by one of Moerke's daughters. That daughter ironically had the same type of cancer that McKenzie ended up having and has fought it throughout her life. It was the years of radiation and chemotherapy that made it hard for her and her husband to have children. But a young lady who was pregnant approached them and asked if they would adopt her child. They did, and loved her through the time they had with her until she passed in 2019.
"So this is a story not only about McKenzie," Moerke said. "This is a story about single moms. It's about adoption. It's about relinquishment. It's about different decisions single moms are going to make. But it's really a home that there's a need for."