Creative Writing Group Creates Bonding Opportunities

Written by Lisa Danes, COTS Volunteer

When I approached COTS with the desire to volunteer, they considered my background and interests before suggesting I lead a creative writing group. The creative writing group at COTS was a great opportunity for me to sit down with residents once a week to share my skills while helping them to develop their own.

The class started out more formal, but after getting to know the residents who attended, evolved into a fun and creative experience. We worked together on different poems and short stories covering nature, animals and art. A few of our sessions were held in the classroom, with two at area parks where we practiced observing our surroundings and looking for inspiration. One resident also submitted a piece of poetry written in the group to be included in the COTS resident newsletter. The class was capped off with a trip to the local Harmony Café for Open Mind (Mic) Night.

The group gave the residents a chance to explore their imaginations in a safe and open learning environment. Sharing what we had written gave us a chance to enjoy each other’s creative minds while offering our opinions and praise.

Each class also gave us a chance to share some details about ourselves and get to know each other a little better. We discussed our hobbies as well our favorite books. I felt like the class allowed the residents to open up to each other as well me. Getting to know the residents in attendance was a truly fulfilling experience that made me happy to offer my time as a volunteer at COTS.

Pam: Learning to Trust

Sitting in the peaceful, shaded yard of her duplex, one would never guess that Pam had once faced addiction and homelessness. The quiet 30-something explains that her addiction to pills began years ago, right after she had lost a good, steady job at a hospital. She was in a bad relationship at the time, and her boyfriend introduced her to pills. Even though she had never used drugs before, she was feeling so depressed from her job loss that she looked towards them as a way to escape her current circumstances.

Flash forward several years and two bouts in treatment later, and Pam arrived at COTS. The most recent treatment facility she had been in told her that she needed a stable, supportive environment in order to break her cycle of addiction. “In order to get a better life, I changed everything,” she explains. That meant setting up a new life for herself in Appleton, three hours from the town she grew up in.

Coming out of her shell

Pam was nervous when she first came to COTS. “I isolated myself a lot in the beginning,” she remembers. Fortunately, she eventually came out of her shell and began making friends with the other COTS residents.

She also found employment at STEP Industries, a company that employs and supports individuals in recovery. “I was excited to start working again,” Pam remembers. However, her career goal was to be a Certified Nursing Assistant again. So, while working at STEP, Pam continued to search for jobs in her field. She was eventually hired by a nursing home.

For Pam, being able to return to the field she loved was a significant turning point. She has been at her current job for six months. “I love it,” she laughs. “I love working with the people, especially the residents. I treat them like I would my family. I don’t take it for granted.” She is always sure to give special attention to the nursing home residents that don’t get many visitors.

“I know they’re always there”

With her new job, Pam saved up enough money to be able to move out of COTS. She now lives with her boyfriend and his son, and is proud to show off the beautiful garden in her backyard. She has stayed involved with COTS through our Aftercare Program, and, in addition to communicating with the Outreach Coordinator regularly, is also still in touch with the Women’s Case Manager. “I’ve never had that before,” Pam states as she describes how she feels cared for by the COTS staff. “I know that they’re always there if I need something.”

Pam also stays in touch with COTS by coming to monthly resident dinners. She says they are a great way to catch up with her friends from COTS.

In the future, Pam would like to go back to school to become a nurse. Through this experience, Pam says that she has learned, “To trust other women. To ask for help. Knowing you’re not alone is always nice.” 

Ricky: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Learning Accountability

“I didn’t know anything different or better,” explains Ricky* when speaking of his past. Ricky watched his father deal drugs starting at a young age, and Ricky eventually took over for his father. He thought it was an easy way to make money and an easy way to support his own drug addiction.

He was eventually arrested and went to jail before being released to the Mooring House to help him deal with his drug addiction.

He came to COTS when he was 21 years old because he “needed a place to stay and support.” At first, Ricky struggled to adjust to his new life at COTS. “I didn’t initially take it seriously,” he remembers. “I didn’t want to change behaviors.”

After a while, Ricky began feeling secluded and depressed. “I knew something needed to change,” he explains. Ricky then started taking the steps he needed to make in order to truly transform himself.

One of those steps was returning to his previous employer, STEP Industries, a company that employs individuals recovering from addiction. “STEP gave me a place to be around people who’ve worked at recovery,” Ricky explains.

At COTS, he began opening up with staff and the other residents. “Staff gave [him] the opportunity to talk about things.” He began applying the lessons he learned during the life skills classes at COTS, such as maintaining a weekly and monthly budget, which, “forced [him] to look at [his] spending habits.”

In February, after two years at COTS, Ricky moved into his own house with roommates. He is now in the COTS Aftercare Program, which supports former COTS residents for two years after they move out. Ricky also credits COTS and STEP Industries with giving him the emotional supports he needed to succeed.

Ricky continues to work at STEP full-time as a Project Lead. “I used to be very passive,” he explains. “Now I have to be the leader.” In the future, he would like to attend college so that he can become an inventor of culinary tools.

*Name has been changed to protect his privacy

COTS Meal Ministry Program Turns Over New Leaf


Don Stoegbauer started COTS’ Meal Ministry Program not long after COTS was first established as a nonprofit organization in 1998.  Our Meal Ministry team is an “army” of hundreds of volunteers who deliver hot meals to more than 60 residents experiencing homelessness every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.  This extraordinary effort provides the basic need of nourishment to the residents of COTS.

About fifteen years ago, Don reached out to Meal Ministry volunteers, hoping to find individuals who were willing to step up to the task of coordinating the Meal Ministry Program.  Lynn Van Zeeland and Jean O’Brien (pictured from left to right above) were the only individuals to respond to Don’s request. Lynn and Jean then became known as Don’s “call girls,” as the Meal Ministry Program became dependent on them calling volunteers who were willing to prepare meals.

Don was a real inspiration to both Jean and Lynn.  In Jean’s words, “Don could find a meal any place in the Valley.”  He would take it upon himself to visit area churches and talk with congregations whenever a need arose for more Meal Ministers.


According to Lynn, “COTS has come a long, long way,” since Don was involved with Meal Ministry, and “Don would be very proud.”  In fact, during Don’s time with Meal Ministry, Meal Ministers were warned not to go in alone when dropping off food at COTS.  Jean and Lynn both recall that residents wouldn’t even make eye contact with anyone who was dropping off a meal.

Today’s Meal Ministers have a much more positive experience.  COTS’ residents greet Meal Ministers with a friendly smile and even help them to unload their cars.

After fifteen years of service, Jean, the Men’s Meal Ministry Coordinator, is set to retire from Meal Ministry at the end of June.  One of her fondest memories during her time as a volunteer is having Meal Ministers call her to tell her how well their food was received by COTS’ residents.  She remembers one Meal Minister saying “One guy cleaned out my pan…I was willing to take it home dirty.”

Jean will certainly be missed, but as with any other program at COTS, change is inevitable.  Jen Gaerthofner, one of COTS’ many dedicated Meal Ministers, has graciously agreed to serve as Jean’s replacement.  We are so grateful for all of the wonderful Meal Ministers who stand with us in the fight against homelessness.  Each and every volunteer is truly a valuable member of the COTS team.

If interested in learning more about COTS’ Meal Ministry Program, please contact COTS’ Development Director, Lindsey MacDonald at 920-734-3609 ext. 404 or

“You Have to Work Hard for What You Want”


Joe* first came to COTS because he wanted to get his life back on track. After being released from jail, he was able to find part-time work, but he knew that his life wasn’t moving in the direction he wanted it to move in.

Joe has been a resident of COTS since September 2012. He first entered the Men’s Program, where he learned about budgeting and responsibility. He was able to find two news jobs, a full-time job and a part-time job. He now works over 50 hours each week so that he can keep paying down debt and increasing his savings.


Five months ago, Joe entered COTS’ Living Debt Free Program, which works with men who have completed COTS programming but need additional time to pay off debt and achieve financial stability. Living Debt Free residents also serve as mentors to the young adult residents. “It’s a good feeling [being a mentor],” says Joe.

Since being at COTS, Joe says that his work ethic has improved dramatically. “One thing I’ve learned is…things don’t happen overnight. You have to work hard for what you want. I actually really like working, and I didn’t used to,” explains Joe.


Joe has already paid down $4,500 in debt and plans to keep paying it down until he is debt-free and has savings.  Joe is proud to share that he is almost off of probation. He also says that he now feels fulfilled. “I’m finally in the right direction in my life,” he grins.

Once he achieves financial stability, Joe plans to move out of COTS. He is also considering going back to school for computer technology or graphic design. The major lesson that he has learned in life is that, “If you want to make it in life, you have to have a steady job.” With his work ethic and determination, Joe is on track to become a successful, independent adult.

*Name has been changed to protect resident’s privacy

Brad: Finding Stability


Brad* began his young adult life with an admirable goal: To become an architect. He went to college for 1 ½ years to study architecture, and even found a job at an architectural firm. However, once he saw what day-to-day life was like as an architect, he realized it wasn’t for him.

Around the same time, he ran out of money. “My family’s always been in financial crisis,” he explains. “My family has gone through a lot…my dad’s in prison. There’s been a lot of heartache.”

Without receiving financial support from his family, Brad felt like he didn’t have any choice except to drop out of college. Finding himself with no career prospects, he began drinking heavily. His heavy drinking led to a string of poor choices. Eventually, he lost his apartment and found himself with nowhere to go.

“I want to have a happy life”

Fortunately, Brad found COTS. The now-24-year-old has been in COTS’ Young Adult Program for the past year. He explains, “I’ve been in troubled spots in my lifetime. I’ve been trying to learn from my mistakes and move on. I want to have a happy life.”

“I’ve been learning a lot financially,” Brad continues. “Financial Peace University has been working well.” Brad’s major goal is to pay down the student loans he accrued while in college. He has paid down $1,500 in debt since being at COTS.

Brad has also found job stability, which he hadn’t had until recently. With the assistance of COTS and Riverview Gardens, a close partner of COTS, Brad was able to find a stable, full-time job. “Job stability was the number one thing I needed,” Brad explains.

Helping animals in need

Brad has also been giving back to the community by volunteering at a local animal rescue. He has volunteered “thousands” of hours working there. “Every hour that I’m there, I just love it,” he grins. “It’s my home away from home.”

Brad also recently received assistance from the COTS Barrier Removal Fund, which helped him get back his driver’s license. Now, Brad hopes to save up enough money to purchase his own vehicle. After paying down debt, Brad’s ultimate goal is, “To have a good, stable job—something I can be stable with. And have a family.”

*Name has been changed to protect resident’s privacy

Cooking With Andrew


Residents learn to be “resourceful with food”

Once a month, COTS’ Executive Director, Andrew Wilson, offers a class to residents at the men’s campus, naturally titled Cooking with Andrew.  Andrew works one-on-one with three to five residents during each class, teaching them how to prepare a meal using only the ingredients available in the COTS pantry.  By using only what is available to them, residents learn “to be resourceful with food,” remarks Andrew; “Basically, we’re multiplying what we have.” 

Andrew enjoys having the opportunity to spend quality time with residents, while simultaneously teaching them a basic living skill.  He especially likes witnessing each resident’s individual way of cooking.  Once the food is prepared by the residents participating in the class, the meal is then shared with all residents on the men’s campus.

Positive results

Although the class was only initiated in April of this year, Andrew has already seen positive results.  In fact, after the first cooking session was held, one resident said he was going to use what he learned when cooking for his grandchildren.  Jay, a resident of the Men’s Program, also attended the first session and felt that “it was interesting learning how to make [chicken pot pie].”  He had previously never made a pot pie, other than a pre-made one from the frozen food section.  The hardest part, according to Jay, was making the dough, as it was made from scratch.  He happily reports that “[the chicken pot pies] turned out good, and it was amazing how simple it was.”  Jay and Andrew, pictured below (left to right), show off their tasty creation.

“More options and fun” to come

During the summer, there will be more resources for cooking, as COTS’ greenhouse will supply fresh vegetables grown by residents.  Andrew looks forward to having “more options and fun” when working with residents to prepare a meal.

Through teaching this class, the Director is also able to see what resources we consistently don’t have that are necessary when cooking.  Among these resources are olive oil and non-salted butter. If interested in donating either of these items, please contact COTS’ development office at 920-734-3609 ext. 404 or

Blog: Women’s Program Updates

Hello from the Women’s Program! My name is Dawn, and I am the Case Manager of the Women’s and Single Mothers with Young Children Programs. I have been with COTS for two years (as of May 1) and continue to grow and learn from our residents each day! Currently, both programs are at 100% occupancy (which can make for some busy days!). Our women’s building has been at capacity with a waiting list since the end of April. The Single Mothers with Young Children Program has been at full occupancy since June of 2013, with a waiting list ever since.

As we are gearing up for the summer, we are looking at bringing in some additional living skills that the ladies are interested in. So far, they have expressed interest in having some of the following classes at our women’s campus: exercise, scrapbooking, healthy eating, Big Book study and creative writing. I will start looking for volunteers that are interested in running some of these types of classes for the women. Furthermore, we are going to be starting a walking club! Everyone is welcome to join! We will plan on walking for about 30-45 minutes a few days each week. This will get us outside engaging with other residents, and also offers the added health benefit!

The biggest news to share is our upcoming Empowerment Retreat that will be held Saturdays, July 19th and 26th, from 9-12:30 p.m. We are bringing four life coaches in that will be creating and facilitating the two day retreat. I think they are more excited than we are right now! All current and Aftercare women will be invited to attend the retreat. Currently, we are working on solidifying a venue and reaching out to the community for some specific items to be donated to enhance the event! Some items that we are looking to have donated include: food (light refreshments), beverages and items for gift bags.

This is the first of this type of event to be held for COTS residents, and we are hopeful that it will be an annual event! The retreat will be so beneficial to our women. Many of the women that reside at COTS have a history of physical/emotional abuse, drug or alcohol dependency, trauma, instability, oppression and low self-esteem. Our wish is that, through the retreat, the women will see their value and self-worth. This will set the stage for a healthy program at COTS and a healthy life after COTS!!

It will certainly be a busy, life-changing summer for many of our residents! We are looking forward to all the positive things that are happening at COTS! Thank you, and have a great summer!

Blog: Living Debt Free

By Andrew Wilson, COTS Executive Director

Andrew became COTS’ Executive Director in December 2013. Prior to working at COTS, Andrew was the Executive Director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Appleton District.  

The issue of homelessness can be an ongoing debate of cause and effect.  The plethora of reasons for which one experiences homelessness usually can be traced back, in some form, to unemployment or underemployment.  During such times, many of those that are living a life defined as homeless begin a catastrophic chain reaction of events that lead them down a path of despair, financial ruin, ridicule and isolation.  “Tomorrow” is no longer a word in their vocabulary as they can only operate in crisis mode to survive the next few hours.  This becomes the way of life for too many for too long.  Life begins to pass them by; debts begin to pile up and family begins to leave them behind.

COTS exists to turn the hazy past into a clear future.  Our programs are not crisis-based, so once potential residents are ready to put their lives back in order, we provide the structure that has been missing for weeks, months or even years.  We educate them, integrate them, support them and learn from them.  They become family members within our COTS community.  COTS staff teaches them to not only think about tomorrow, but about next month, next year and further.

Sometimes, however, more support is still needed.  Because of poor decisions or the lack of employment in their past, all the shelter, education and support in the world can’t take away the fact that many residents have built up seemingly insurmountable amounts of bad debt during their homelessness experience.  Our goal at COTS is to catapult these residents into the next positive stage of their lives:  a debt-free stage.

COTS’ Living Debt Free Program, initiated at the end of 2013, provides the safe and welcoming environment needed for residents to move on to a new, often foreign, stage of their lives when they can truly say that they no longer owe money.  This program operates within the Men’s Program and provides up to an additional two years of transitional housing to individuals who need a little more time before they are comfortable leaving the COTS environment.  Residents in the Living Debt Free Program are able to focus on paying off debt because they have already completed other COTS’ programming.

While residents are participating in COTS’ Living Debt Free Program, they are required to mentor a resident in our Young Adult Program.  For both the mentor and the mentee, they have created a new family bond at COTS.

When an individual leaves COTS debt-free, the chance of becoming homeless again is next to nothing.  These residents have employment, savings and a future again.  The Living Debt Free Program truly fulfills our mission of “Ending Homelessness in the Fox Valley”.

Blog: Celebrate Successes, Not Failures

By Jenna Hammer, COTS Case Manager

Jenna is the Young Adult and Living Debt Free Case Manager at COTS. Jenna started at COTS as a University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Bachelor of Social Work Intern in September of 2012. Once she graduated in May 2013, Jenna was hired on full-time as the Young Adult Case Manager. Jenna also works with the other staff members to coordinate intakes and living skill classes at COTS. Currently, Jenna is working on obtaining her Master’s Degree in Social Work at the University of Wisconsin Green-Bay.

The COTS Young Adult program started in 2012 to fulfill a need in the community due to young adults aging out of the foster care and juvenile systems resulting in them being homeless. The COTS Young Adult Program allows residents between the ages 18-24, who complete our 2-year program to complete the necessary living skills’ instruction to be able to live independently. They complete training with ServiceWorks, which is an intensive community-based job training program, gain the necessary job skills to obtain and maintain permanent, full-time employment, become debt-free and financially independent, gain respect of self and others, experience personal growth and development, live a self-sufficient and self-directed lifestyle, and obtain safe, stable and permanent housing.

Many of the young adults we serve come from the juvenile justice system, so they understand and expect punishment and negative consequences for their negative actions. At COTS we are turning that thinking of highlighting the negatives around. By emphasizing and celebrating the positives in the young adults’ lives, we make them recognize that the world isn’t all about focusing on the bad in someone, but instead reflecting on the good in someone.

As the Young Adult Case Manager, I have experimented with many different negative and positive reinforcement techniques since I started in May of 2013 to help my clients succeed and I think I’ve finally found what works! Instead of giving the residents a consequence for not doing their chores, not participating, and not having a clean room, why not applaud them for doing their chore, putting effort into the program, and for having a clean room? There are many residents who do what they need to do plus more that is not expected, so drawing the attention on them and praising them for their great effort and work is important.

In this journey of exploring all the different options for reinforcing the rules I am happy that I have got to where I am now with the COTS young adult program. The guys are very excited when their reward points increase weekly and are even more excited when they get to cash those points in for prizes including small amount gift cards to area businesses. Small changes add up and positive motivation is a lot more rewarding than negative consequences; it brings out the best in everyone and pushes everyone to succeed instead of setting them up for failure.

In the end, setting our residents up to succeed instead of setting them up for failure reflects our mission of Ending Homelessness in the Fox Valley. If we can change lives around from the punitive stand point to the rewarding stand point we can surely make a difference!