A resident once described the Haven as “the little house that love built.” Indeed, the Haven is a house built and sustained by the love, determination and courage of ordinary people – starting with our founders.
In 1992, on a cold and wintery night, a small group of people began meeting in Mike Gretz’s living room, determined to find a way to help the homeless. Incredibly, just five months after their first meeting, they welcomed the first women and children to the Lake County Haven. The little group Gretz assembled had no experience running a shelter, no money, and like every busy person they knew – no time to spare. They said yes to the challenge anyway. Peg Bradley, who was a neighbor of Mike’s in Lake Forest, recalled a pivotal conversation. “I remember saying to Mike, ‘If you really want this to happen, you should just get a group of friends together and make it happen.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re the first one!’”
Gretz became the first president of the Board of Directors, and Bradley the first vice president. She learned early on that the group would do more than talk about homelessness. Gretz, self-described as “fairly driven,” had teamed up with the equally dynamic Rev. Phyllis Mueller, a Presbyterian minister running a McHenry homeless shelter. Rev. Mueller agreed to advise Gretz’s group. “Phyllis said to us, ‘The first thing you need to do is find a place for a shelter.’” Bradley vividly recalls her astonishment that finding a house was their first task. “I remember thinking at the time that it would be at least a year before I had to do something.”
They juggled jobs and families to make time for the Haven. They asked everyone they knew for money. They started collecting furniture. And they prayed. “Phyllis used to say, ‘If it is meant to be, God will make it happen,’” Gretz recalled. After the group rented a three-bedroom ranch home in Libertyville the next hurdle was that they had no money. Gretz and Bradley, however, were determined to find it. The First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest agreed to pay the shelter’s rent for the first six months. (First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest has been a generous supporter ever since.) Then United Way of Lake County contributed $30,000, a grant that sustained the shelter for many more months.
In those early days, with only a part-time staff person, the work was endless. Gretz, who had his own small business to run, doggedly pursued funding from corporations, individuals, churches and foundations. He hauled furniture, lined up volunteers, painted and cleaned. Board members pulled together and did whatever jobs were necessary to keep the shelter running. “There were no egos,” Bradley said. “It became a full-time job,” she said. “I was there so much, putting dishes in the cupboard, making beds, cleaning toilets.”
“What really spoke to me from the beginning were the children,” Bradley said. “You knew that if the mom didn’t get help, the children were going to be hurt. I’d look at those little faces, and I knew it was worth doing because the children were going to be OK.” The grass-roots effort started by a few soon spread like wildfire. Volunteers were eager to help by doing maintenance jobs, sorting clothes, driving women to appointments or babysitting. Bradley started a Women’s Auxiliary that continues today, raising thousands of dollars every year through an annual fundraiser held in Spring.
Every year, the funding base grew with new investors contributing to the program. “Transitional living and the way the Haven is set up speaks to everyone’s hearts because it empowers women to be independent, and it works,” Bradley said. “That’s why so many help and why they’re willing to work so hard and give their money to it.” For Gretz and Bradley, starting the Haven will always be a milestone moment in their lives. “It allowed me to feel like I did something that helped people and made a difference,” Gretz said. “That was very rewarding and satisfying.” “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Bradley said. “If I didn’t do anything else good in my life, I’ve got the Haven.” ♥