Conversations Over Coffee: Celebrating Five Years of Pillars

On October 1, 2023, we celebrated our fifth birthday. Five years ago, three non-profits came together to become Pillars. These legacy organizations include Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities, Homeless Connections, and Fox Valley Warming Shelter. The three leaders of these organizations met and established that this was not a merger to cut costs or increase profits, but rather to better serve the community. The overall goal was to provide one organization that can provide a continuum of services. The name “Pillars” was chosen because pillars do not stand alone, they are stronger together. Pillars also support something larger than themselves.

Executive Director Lisa Strandberg says the first five years of the merger were categorized by collaboration, innovation, and optimism. Each legacy organization brought services to the community, but they also came with their own strengths. Housing Partnerships brought many partnerships, Fox Cities Warming Shelter brought numerous volunteers, and Homeless Connections brought a sense of governance. All of these strengths were key aspects in the early days of Pillars and getting things off the ground.

In the last five years, we have added services and programs that have become key aspects of who we are. Our Prevention and Diversion program was added to help keep people in their homes and out of shelter. Our Resource Center was also added, which gives folks staying in our shelters (and folks who are unsheltered) somewhere to go during the day to access resources relating to healthcare, education, employment, and housing to ultimately help set them on a path toward self-sustainability. Our SRO (Single Room Occupancy) program was also created in the early days of the merger, which brings together unrelated adults under a single roof to live like roommates with their own rooms and shared common spaces. This helps people who have an income build a rental history. Today, Pillars has five SRO homes. Lastly, we were able to add Ascend, which houses adults ages 18-25 struggling with mental health. These are all innovative programs that have helped shape Pillars into the organization it is today.

Although we had many successes, every merger has its challenges. During our merger came the COVID-19 pandemic. It is said that it can take three years for a merger to truly be complete, and a year and a half into our three years we were faced with the many challenges of this unprecedented time. The pandemic took a big toll on the team at Pillars, as it did in many other industries. Things were constantly changing, all while we were trying to merge the culture of three organizations across five sites. As an organization, we had to focus on internal collaboration. Now that we have come out of the pandemic, we have begun shifting our focus on collaboration with the community.

As we move forward, we recognize that the number of folks who are experiencing homelessness is on the rise. Numbers from the PIT (Point-In-Time) count have increased roughly 50% in Appleton from July 2022 to July 2023. Expanding access to affordable housing is truly a focus as we move forward, as it is a big need in our community and the most effective way to address the rising numbers. We would love to continue growing our inventory of housing as well as partner with landlords who want to help address the shortage of affordable housing.
Lastly, Pillars is still in its adolescence at five years of age, and we are focusing on building our identity and maturing as an organization. We are celebrating our first half-decade as an organization and we are looking forward to the next half-decade!