JOLIET – Leaders of Will County’s oldest nonprofit agency still are settling into a new location, but they see it as a historic step forward.
Guardian Angel Community Services still is unpacking at its new location, 168 N. Ottawa St. in downtown Joliet, after moving from the building it occupied for close to 90 years at Plainfield Road and Theodore Street. But the family services agency is serving clients at the new offices.
The agency, which was once an orphanage, has grown in the number of programs it offers and clients it serves. Guardian Angel now serves more than 30,000 clients a year.
Moving into a new building in downtown Joliet was exciting for April Balzhiser, the agency’s chief operating officer. Now April and others are working closer to community resources, such as the Will County Courthouse, State’s Attorney’s Office and Metra train station.
“It’s much more convenient for clients to access additional services,” she said.
The agency has grown in the number of services it offers since it began 117 years ago. The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, a Joliet religious order, established an orphanage in the late 1890s when they saw need for one in the community.
It was later renamed Guardian Angel Home. The orphanage moved to its location on Plainfield Road and Theodore Street in 1925. The agency became a nonprofit group with its own set of board directors in the early 1970s as it focused on treating emotionally disturbed children and families.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate sponsored the agency until 2011, when the decision was made to withdraw sponsorship as Catholic teachings differed from court rulings that foster agencies had to follow when working with homosexual or unmarried couples.
Guardian Angel Community Services now offers foster care services, partner abuse intervention, sexual assault and rape crisis services and child abuse and neglect prevention services.
Adjusting to the new location
The familiar building on Plainfield Road was bought by the University of St. Francis in the spring. USF plans to put its nursing college there. With months of planning, Guardian Angel Community Services began its move in earnest in July.
Ines Kutlesa, the agency’s chief executive officer, said the moving process was rewarding and historic.
“This has been a labor of love from the start,” she said.
The new location is smaller. The old building had a gym. But the new facility gave the agency the opportunity to design it in a way that would best fit its needs, Kutlesa said.
“We wanted to be able to create a welcoming space for the families we serve,” she said about the new location. “We were successful in doing that.”
The downtown location is a huge adjustment for Valerie Pastwa, the agency’s marketing and communications specialist. There were many things staff grew accustomed to in the old location, but the new location will be closer for many clients, she said.
“It’s important they have access and walking distance from services,” Pastwa said.
Agency changes over
The agency’s services have continued to expand since the 1970s and early 1980s. Kutlesa said Will County is one of the state’s fastest growing counties and the agency is serving more clients.
For instance, the agency’s domestic violence hotline received 56 calls a month 10 years ago and now receives more than 900 calls a month, she said. Since 2000, the agency has seen a 200 percent increase in the number of service hours for its sexual assault program.
All this has meant the agency has needed to spread awareness about domestic violence and the services it offers in response, Kutlesa said.
“I think just in general we are out there reaching the masses, especially through our sexual assault program, which is doing a phenomenal job, so people feel comfortable coming forward,” she said.
According to its 2013 annual report, the agency receives support from individual donors, organizations and estates. It also receives support from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, United Way of Will County, United Way of Grundy County, U.S. Dept. of Justice and other organizations.
When Pastwa came to the agency six years ago, she worked in its emergency domestic violence program as a caseworker and subsequently worked in other programs. In her current position, she tries to find support for the agency through fundraising, events and volunteer work.
“It’s really great to come from where I come from working with victims for so long and then being on the donor side and telling people what’s needed,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The following number of people were served in 2013 through the core programs offered by Guardian Angel Community Services:
• Suzy’s Caring Place: 38
• Dillard Harris Educational Center: 56
• Exchange Club Center: 60
• Foster care services: 73
• Partner Abuse Intervention Program: 93
• Sexual assault service center: 734
• Groundwork domestic violence program: 3,240
• Number of people served in additional services: 23,795
Source: 2013 Guardian Angel Community Services Annual Report