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New executive director takes over at Benjamin’s House

The new executive director for Benjamin’s House Emergency Shelter is on the job and enthusiastically adopting the homeless shelter’s mission with a few ideas of her own she hopes to implement.

Nicole Howard, originally of Weyerhaueser but now a longtime Chetek resident, came on board on Jan. 3, taking over from Lori Zahrbock, who left as executive director to take the lead at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Barron County.

Howard had worked for several years with a large organization that performed community outreach and set up second chance programs for inmates in 37 states, helping them learn skills they needed once released. It was meaningful for her to be able to provide them with opportunities.

“Sometimes employers will look at the background and not look at case-by-case,” she said. “Which can be frustrating for the candidate because they’re just looking for that opportunity. And if they don’t get that opportunity, how can they be successful in the future?”

But at the same time Howard said she wanted to do something a little more meaningful for her, give back to the community and become more involved. How she eventually ended up in the executive director’s chair at Benjamin’s House — fulfilling that dream — came down to serendipity in many ways.

Howard saw the position posted, but when she asked about it she learned a replacement for Zahrbock was already in the works.

“OK, it wasn’t meant to be,” she recalled thinking.

Then Howard was laid off permanently. The next thing she knew the Benjamin’s House Board of Directors called to find out if she wanted to interview. Everything fell into place from there.

Getting her bearings

Having just started on Jan. 3, Howard is still getting into the swing of things to help run the 17-room emergency shelter, and she had a glowing opinion of the programs already in place.

Residents can stay at the shelter for up to 90 days, but then they have to move on — hopefully to a job and place to live. Helping them get back on their feet and prepared for success is a major part of the shelter’s mission.

The shelter’s case managers also provide continued care after residents move out to ensure they have the tools so they don’t need to come back, Howard said.

Another program the shelter provides a home for is the Compassion Closet, which is run by Red Cedar Church. It is chock full of clothes, shoes and outerwear of all sizes plus the basic necessities. It not only caters to residents but to the community at large — “no questions asked,” Howard said.

Volunteers from Red Cedar Church typically are on hand Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon. at the closet.

The shelter also has some furniture and decor for residents to furnish their new homes once they leave.

The nonprofit, which receives no state or federal funding, relies on donations and fundraisers — such as Street Eats, which will make a return this year. Donations of shelf-stable foods to supplement donations from Kwik Trip give residents the ingredients to make their own meals for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is catered by volunteers who make the food on site or bring it in. Benjamin’s House website has more information on this volunteer opportunity.

Future goals

Howard has some ideas of her own for the shelter’s future. Homelessness isn’t disappearing any time soon and she’d like to expand the number of beds, she said. Currently the shelter is at capacity, but that’s because they need another case manager to accept more residents.

“I want to be able to have beds available so that nobody’s out on the street, especially in the dead of winter,” Howard said.

And now that Benjamin’s House owns the building outright, they can paint the walls, Howard laughed.

Howard, who is married, is diving into her new role, taking her three sons — 16-year-old Alec, 14-year-old Bret and 12-year-old Porter — with her.

“They’re actually very excited to be part of this because they’ve always been super-involved in what I do,” she said. “They’re all super-compassionate in a different way.”

For more information on Benjamin’s House, visit benjamins-house.org.


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Little Red Barn Dog Rescue's upcoming charity dinner sold out

The Little Red Barn Dog Rescue located at 2397 Highway SS, north of Rice Lake, is amazed that a 250-seat Who Rescued Who $50 a plate charity dinner scheduled for Jan. 28 at the Rice Elks Club has already been sold out.

For those who were able to secure a ticket, doors open at 5 p.m., and the dinner is served at 6 p.m. Live music by Bare Bones and Weston Schissel will continue until 9 p.m. In addition to the dinner and music, many businesses have donated silent auction and raffle prizes.

Although no seating remains, there is still a chance to donate prizes.

Maureen Mlejnek, co-founder of LRBDR with husband Ryan, remarked, “We will be accepting donations of items from businesses and community members for our raffle, auction and door prizes until Wednesday, the 25th, for anyone who would like to donate.”

Funds from the charity dinner will be used for toward a building expansion, with $125K raised of the $250K needed to proceed.

As stated on its Facebook page, as a nonprofit LRBDR operates primarily off of donations collected from supporters to provide its residents with the very best in medical, enrichment and care. Donations are used toward transportation fees, medical fees and daily care needs.

”We began operations late January of 2020, and we are hoping to build our rescue to last,” the founders note. “We are constantly evolving to provide our residents with every thing they may need to strive, learn, be happy and healthy.”

Mlejnek remarked, “It’s amazing the support the dinner got. We are going to have to find a bigger venue next time.”

She added, “We are going to have a sister event this summer, a Who Rescued Who Family Fun Day and Dog Walk.”

Rescuing, microchipping update

According to her records, 256 dogs and six kittens arrived at their facility in 2022.

In addition, approximately 250 pets were microchipped at their free, microchip clinics in 2022. Another free microchip clinic is Saturday at Farm and Fleet, where dogs will also be available for adoption.

The dog rescuers and microchippers said 2023 is already starting off as “a crazy ride.”

As noted on Jan. 9, Mlejnek said, “So far in 2023, we have had 18 dogs come to LRBDR with eight puppies waiting for the middle of the month. Our Missy Trap caught three elusive dogs in its first month, and 21 puppies were picked up in Kansas, driven back to Wisconsin, and gotten medically ready to be adopted at Spooner and Chippewa humane societies.”

She added, “We absolutely love the volunteer work we do, and that is not possible without donations. We are entering our third year of operations, and in that short time, over 750 dogs have come through our doors. Neglect, abuse, abandoned and surrenders — we have loved every single one of them and hope to continue our work for years to come.”

Monetary donations can be made through a link on its website, littleredbarndogrescue.org. Or donations can be mailed to: Attn: LRBDR, 2397 Highway SS, Rice Lake, WI 54868.


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Man in critical condition following snowmobile crash

The Barron County Sheriff’s Department is investigating a snowmobile crash that left an Eau Claire man in critical condition.

According to a Sheriff’s Department news release, the 911 center received a call at 12:56 a.m. on Saturday about a crash that happened just off Highway SS north of Rice Lake.

The initial investigation shows a snowmobile was traveling on the Tuscobia Trail when the driver went off the trail and struck a tree. Eric Zimmerman, 45, was transported to Marshfield Medical Center and later to an Eau Claire hospital in critical condition.

Speed and alcohol are contributing factors, the news release said, and the crash remains under investigation by the Sheriff’s Department and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Deputies from the Barron County Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene, along with the LMC Ambulance, the Rice Lake Fire Department and the DNR.


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