Tree House Child and Family Center founder Margaret C. Downing passed away in July. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Wagie-Troemel)

In memory of the late Margaret C. Downing, the Tree House Child and Family Center recently announced that they have renamed their building the Margaret C. Downing Tree House and Family Center.

The longtime volunteer and board president of Tree House began serving the home of the Children’s Wisconsin Walworth County Child Advocacy Center on April 15, 2013, when it first opened its doors at W4063 Highway NN in Elkhorn. The non-profit side of the Tree House provides child abuse awareness, prevention and education and training programs to those in Walworth County, and works to establish relationships with community partners, such as law enforcement, medical professionals, mental health professionals, educators, the district attorneys office, corporation counsel, child protective services and more.

When Downing died in July, the Tree House Board of Directors desired to recognize her many years of service to the community. Naming the building after her seemed to be the perfect way to honor her legacy.

“Margaret’s contributions of time, talent, and treasure made possible the 20-year dream of a special, home-like space where suspected victims of child abuse could feel comfortable telling their stories and receiving help,” said current Tree House Board President Heidi Lloyd. “She had an uncanny ability to ask for help on behalf of children in need where the only possible answer was ‘yes.’ We will forever treasure her dedication to the children of Walworth County and the Tree House.”

According to her daughter, Nichole “Koko” Cooper, Downing successfully sought a land donation from Walworth County, rallied community support, and spearheaded a building campaign to make a difference in the lives of children.

Downing and her late husband, George, had three daughters in addition to Nicole – Susan Wesner, Tara Young and Monica Hochevar. Their son, Jeffrey, preceded her in death. They have nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A devout Catholic, Downing was a member of St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva, and served as president of the school board and volunteered with many community organizations. In September 2016, she received the Tree House Founders Award.

“Our mother believed passionately that the Tree House has a crucial role to play in bringing more attention throughout Walworth County to the issues of child abuse and neglect. It was so important to her that statistics not have the last word in the fight against child abuse,” she said. “However, our mom was far more comfortable being in the background than in the spotlight. I think it would be important to her that everyone knows she could not have done the work that she did on behalf of the Tree House alone — there are many people who had a passionate commitment to this cause before my mom joined the board, there are many people who worked alongside her to make the facility that now exists possible, and she would want there to be many people who continue to carry the mission forward.”

Cooper added that while the facility bears her mother’s name, Downing would want it to be a tribute to what each Tree House board member, staff member, volunteer and past, present and future supporter made possible for the community. Her goal was to make the world a better place, especially for the children who suffered greatly.

“Our mom was a fighter on so many levels, and when I think about why she fought so hard for this cause, I think that it’s because the reality it represents truly frightened her: the darkness and isolation and suffering that a child faces at the hands of an abuser was almost more than she could bear. But because there was so much she could not do to protect a child from abuse, I think it made her double down on everything she could do,” said Cooper. “She could pick up the phone and make calls. She could make asks. She could raise money; she could raise awareness. She could hug her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and believe that every single child deserves to know that there are people who will fight tooth and nail for their safety, well-being and happiness. And she could make sure that we as a community not only say we share that belief, but that we walk the talk with our actions and resources that we make available to those children and their families.”

According to Sandy Wagie-Troemel, a friend and Tree House board member, Downing was the catalyst to build the Tree House.

“She worked with Dave Bretl, Nancy Russell and the County Board to purchase five acres of land for $1. She went to many town of Geneva meetings and county meetings to answer questions for the hard-fought approval to build the Tree House,” Wagie-Troemel said. “She worked closely designing the building with our architect, Bill Henry. She worked with Lakeland Builders and especially Jean Kruzan and Randy Thelen to get the Tree House built. Margaret worked tirelessly with Paula Hocking, Mark Lyday and Children’s of Wisconsin to create the perfect building where children and families feel comfortable and safe. She worked for months doing all the paperwork to insure we didn’t have to pay taxes on the land or the building.”

A gifted fundraiser, Downing organized numerous events, such as The Holiday Tea, to raise funds for the Tree House. She ran the monthly executive board meetings and the general board meetings, and spread word throughout Walworth County about the mission and how they were helping children and families.

“Margaret’s passion, empathy, strength, dedication, personality, and love of children is truly why the Margaret C. Downing Tree House and Family Center was built,” said Wagie-Troemel. “I am so very proud that her legacy will live on in Walworth County, where she touched so many lives.”