The Washington Square building could become the home of single mothers
By Olivia Kennah May 19, 2022
GREEN RIVER – On December 26, 2019, the community of Green River nearly lost a historic landmark when the Washington Square building caught fire. Now, two years and five months later, a future has been mapped out for the building.
Debra Moerke, a resident of Casper, announced plans to restore the building and turn it into a transition house for single mothers. While the 1950s side of the building will be the home for single mothers, the 1920s side, which was the one affected by the flames, will remain a place for offices and banquet halls for community use.
As well as being a halfway house, Moerke said the goal would be to set up a program for mothers to help them gain independence. The house will be known as the McKenzie Home, named after Moerke’s late granddaughter, who was born to a single mother.
However, wanting to stay true to the building’s history in Washington Square, she said she also wanted to keep the Washington name. Therefore, the business and events side of the building will always be known as Washington Square.
Why Green River?
During an information meeting at the Expedition Island lodge on Saturday, May 14, Moerke said he understands some people might wonder why a Casper resident wants to start this kind of project in Green River. She explained that Moerke’s husband has a long family history in Green River and two of their daughters live in Green River, giving the Moerkes an investment in the community.
In September 2019, Moerke’s 5-year-old granddaughter McKenzie died in a battle with cancer. She said as she passed the building in Washington Square on her way to the cemetery for the memorial service, she was struck by the building.
“I was just in love with this building,” Moerke said.
There’s something about this building that I’m supposed to pay attention to.
Months later, his daughter told him about the fire.
“My heart just dropped,” she said.
Moerke began researching the building and found the owner, Hector Castillon. When he told her that he was unable to repair the building, she decided to help him. Moerke spent 18 years caring for over 140 children, served as the director of a crisis center, served in prisons and prison ministry, and worked as a prison officer in Phoenix for a few years. She realized that throughout these experiences she had always worked with people who were going through some kind of crisis and devastation, and she always saw the light in those experiences.
“Now there is a possibility for the future and the possibility of a new use for this building,” she said.
McKenzie Home and the Single Mother Program
Moerke pointed out that the McKenzie Home would not just be a place for single mothers to stay for a while, but would rather be a program to follow. She said the program would not be so strict that it made women feel like they were being punished, but would be organized. Moerke said women could stay between one month, six months and one year.
During the briefing, Moerke explained what the McKenzie Home is a program to house and help pregnant women or women with children gain independence who have no support to go to. There will be a social worker assigned to the program who will help place the women in the house and help them gain autonomy.
In a statement of intent, Moerke wrote: “Women who find themselves as single parents often fall through the cracks of our society. If they don’t need special treatment because of drugs or alcohol, or a safe environment, they often feel there is little support or help for them. become strong and independent in their community. Often they will turn to unhealthy alternatives putting themselves and their children at risk.
Moerke said her goal was to provide women with a place where they could gain stability and independence before they found themselves in one of those unhealthy situations. Therefore, the McKenzie Home is not a treatment facility or a safe house.
“Can we catch the girls before they need them?” asked Moerke.
The project is in the preliminary stages, but Moerke knows the McKenzie Home will have 11 to 12 bedrooms for the women and their children until they can move into a more permanent living space. Each room will have its own bathroom and a mini-fridge. There will then be a communal kitchen where families can cook.
The project will require a lot of time, effort and money, but she is confident that this project can be realized within three years. The estimated cost of restoring the building and starting the program is approximately $10 million. However, she said there are several grants to help restore these old historic buildings.
The aim is to capture as much of the 1920s architecture and charm as possible. Design planner John Gudger said that when designing the building he thought about the specific needs and functions of the program, while also working on how to maintain the original aesthetics of the building.
Moerke added that the main source of funding will come from fundraisers and money from offices and event spaces in the 1920s section of the building will flow back into the building.
Community involvement needed
While Moerke assembled about 15 people to serve on an advisory board and director in Casper, she stressed the importance of local individuals taking over.
While several local organizations such as the Department of Family Services, CLIMB Wyoming, the YWCA and many others are excited about the possibility of this halfway house, Moerke said it would take a lot of community involvement to become a reality.
Examples of community involvement Moerke gave included people coming to teach cooking classes or teaching women how to change a tire and more. Community members could also donate or adopt a room, as well as sit on the advisory board.
For those interested in knowing how they can help, email Debra Moerke at [email protected] For more information on McKenzie Home’s mission and goals, see below.