Father Gene’s Help Center has undergone a major renovation to make it easier for the organization’s clients to get the help they need. (Submitted photo)

For more than 50 years, those in need have found a kind face, listening ear, and free clothes, boots and shoes at a West Allis based help center.

After a grant paved the way for a renovation project last summer, the 2,100-square-foot Father Gene’s Help Center (FGHC) is more inviting to clients than ever. Before the renovation, volunteers selected clothing for the clients, who now can choose their desired items by appointment.

According to FGHC Executive Director Jessica Luebbering, the Center is a labor of love, as they have dedicated their efforts to serve the most vulnerable in the Milwaukee area.

“That labor of love includes the upkeep of the facility. The creativity and thriftiness of the volunteers meant the organization was able to focus precious financial resources on directly serving the community,” she said. “Over time, those volunteers who had given so much love to the ministry got older and weren’t able to continue volunteering. In addition, architectural styles changed over time, and the building’s appearance got a little dated.”

The city of West Allis offered a grant covering half of the remodeling expenses, and private donors, including First Light Asset Management, covered the other half.

Renovations included removing wallpaper and replacing it with fresh paint, adding new fixtures and replacing the exterior lettering with the FGHC logo. They also added new windows and updated the exterior.

The Center features a range of clothing and accessories for all ages. Clothing is displayed on the walls and circular racks, making it easy for shoppers to locate their desired sizes and styles.

“The concept for client shopping came out of a study done by one of the board members who is skilled in operations. He looked at the way we were filling orders for clients and suggested that to serve more people, we needed to use time more efficiently by inviting clients to select their own clothing,” said Luebbering. “As experts of their own clothing styles, clients can pick out clothing for themselves much more quickly than volunteers can. Further, client shopping is scalable. When packing an order for clients, there’s a one-client-to-one-volunteer ratio. But, with client shopping, we can invite more people in to shop, and the additional people can be served by fewer volunteers.”

Duffek Construction renovated the façade, and Luebbering credits their project manager, Matt Roesch, for minimizing costs and guiding the Center through the construction process. Several contractors assisted with various aspects of the project, such as Pieper Power and Innovative Signs.

According to Luebbering, the renovation has increased the sense of welcome and hospitality visitors experience when visiting the Center.

“We have created a space that is physically beautiful in the hopes that clients feel a sense of dignity in being welcomed to shop in what feels like an upscale boutique. Our goal is to be known as the highest quality, most dignifying, and most hospitable free clothing closet in the greater Milwaukee area,” she said.

Approximately 300 visit the Center each month, and Luebbering said they encourage clients only to return once in three months for an “extra boost”­­ or seasonal wardrobe changes. The remodeling efforts have made a positive difference in the ways the FGHC serves the community.

“Clothing has the power to transform how we feel about ourselves,” she said. “When we wear clothing that we feel confident in, our demeanor changes, the way we carry ourselves changes, and our ability to navigate the ups and downs of daily life are strengthened. There is dignity in being able to choose clothing for yourself, to say ‘I like this outfit.’ Or ‘This is one piece of clothing that will help me to become the best version of myself.’”

By specializing in clothing, Luebbering explained that the focus helps them better serve their clients’ needs and use their physical space more effectively.

“We support the clothing needs of over 30 other agencies in the Milwaukee area, and we’re looking to deepen the relationships with outside agencies to better direct and refer clients to resources that can address other needs they may have,” she said.

Feedback on the renovations has been very positive, and often passersby mistake the Center for a store. Many of their clients compare their experience to shopping at a department store.

“One client was recently moved to tears by the abundance and hospitality that she discovered at FGHC. Volunteers share how much they enjoy getting to know clients by helping the shoppers find items and checking out when the clients have concluded shopping,” said Luebbering. “We’re able to connect with clients in a more tangible way, brought together by clothing and style, bonded by the pursuit of items that ‘speak’ to the clients. We are becoming known as a reputably hospitable place, where we can say yes to walk-ins, where we can serve clients quickly, where a man experiencing homelessness knows he can come for a clean t-shirt, a cup of coffee, greeted by a smile, and to be known by name.”

If you want to help or donate, contact Luebbering at 414-258-4357, ext. 101, or www.fathergeneshelp.org.