‘Best-Kept Secret’ for Families Celebrates 25 Years
River Source Family Center in C.F. offers free programs for young children
For 25 years, young children in Chippewa Falls have known that the purple building on High Street is a place to have fun. The space is sunny and filled with colorful toys, an alphabet-bedecked rug, and pint-sized furniture.
While it resembles a child-care center or a kindergarten classroom, the purpose of River Source Family Center is a bit different. Since 1997, River Source had pursued a mission of strengthening “families with young children by promoting growth through education, information, referral, and opportunities to share experiences.”
All families need support. All families need to talk to other families.
parent services director, River Source FAMILY CENTER
What does that mean in practice? It means Play & Learn sessions, full of one-on-one play, learning activities, and crafts. It means Movin’ & Groovin’ music classes, which little bodies and brains stretch and grow. It means Baby & Me playgroups, Parent Café evenings, home visits from parent educators, and much more – all of it meant for kids aged birth to 5 and their parents or caregivers.
The nonprofit organization’s programs are all aimed at forming bonds between young kids and their adults, as well as among different families. And those families come to River Source from all walks of life and income levels.
“All families need support,” said Becce Woestman, parent services director at River Source. “All families need to talk to other families.”
Parenting young children can be an exhausting and isolating time of life, especially when someone is new to a community. For some families, River Source can provide a perfect venue to get to know other families who are in the same stage of life, Woestman said.
“My all-time heartwarming moment is when I see friendships bloom,” Woestman said, who recalled recently seeing two young mothers, both new to town, exchanging phone numbers at a River Source session.
River Source Family Center was created in 1997 as a program of the Family Support Center, a Chippewa Falls-based nonprofit that’s focused on supporting survivors of domestic and child abuse. Like a similar organization based in Eau Claire – the Family Resource Center, which serves Eau Claire and Dunn counties – River Source Family Center provides free programs to strengthen families.
During the height of the pandemic, the center made do with virtual programming and some outside activities, but since earlier this year in-person programs have returned, and the response has been encouraging. Since July, 219 children and 128 adults have taken part in River Source programs, nearly as many as would during an entire year before the pandemic, Woestman said.
The organization is a nonprofit and is supported through grants from United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, the state Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention Board, a Mayo Clinic Health System Hometown Health Grant, as well as other donations.
River Source partners with many other agencies in the area, including public health nurses, WIC, Early Head Start, public libraries, local hospitals, and more.
While based in Chippewa Falls, the River Source Family Center serves all of Chippewa County, and operates rural Play and Learn sessions in Stanley, Bloomer, and Cornell, so families in more rural parts of the county can access its programs.
While today’s parents have much more information about parenting available to them, they face the same challenges as previous generations of parents: Children don’t come with instructions, and each one is different, Woestman noted.
While Woestman said she sometimes calls the agency the area’s best-kept secret, its approach isn’t a secret at all: Using children’s natural interests to teach them and their adults.
“‘Play is learning’ is our big thing,” explained Amanda Rygiel, a family connection facilitator at River Source. While activities in play groups are meant to be fun, they are also carefully designed with educational goals in mind.
And that makes them enjoyable – and effective – for everyone involved.
“I have such an appreciation for this age group and these families,” Woestman added.