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Know Your Madisonian: MOM director drawn to work that impacts people’s lives

December 22, 2018

Change has been planned and unplanned for Middleton Outreach Ministry.

But the organization that serves the West Side of Madison, Middleton and Cross Plains has grown its mission to end hunger and prevent homelessness through food programs, case management and housing assistance.

MOM, established in 1980 by a local church and expanded with the help of other churches and faith-based organizations, transitioned in 2007 into a business-based organization both at the board and leadership levels with offices on Hubbard Avenue with its food pantry and clothing distribution center in an industrial park off Highway 14. In 2013, MOM embarked on a capital campaign that consolidated operations into one location with nearly 18,000-square-feet of space near the intersection of Parmenter Street and Airport Road in Middleton. The facility has space for case managers, executive and support offices and a separate building for what are now an expanded food pantry with more storage and cooler and freezer space and a clothing center.

MOM, which raises $1 million a year and distributes $3 million a year in food and clothing and serves 65 households a day, was further challenged when Alvin Ripp, its executive director since 2013, died unexpectedly in June 2017. Ripp’s death put Ellen Carlson into his position on an interim basis but in October 2017, Carlson, who has been with MOM since 2002, was tabbed to do the job permanently.

Carlson, 41, whose parents and grandparents are from the Milwaukee area, grew up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities and came to UW-Madison to pursue a degree in psychology and had thoughts of medical school. But instead of going to graduate school, Carlson took a break and spent two years in AmeriCorps, where she spent a year in the Schools of Hope project and another year as a leader with an office at the United Way.

“I kind of looked around and realized this is what I wanted to do,” Carlson said of non-profit work. “So after AmeriCorps I looked around for non-profits and this is the one I got.”

Are you surprised at your career choice and how it unfolded?

I always knew that I wanted to work with people and do things that affected the lives of people. I think that’s what made me so interested in medical school was the idea of using my interest in science to making a difference in the lives of people. So it’s probably not a real surprise that I ended up where I am, but looking back on it, yeah.

How small was MOM when you began working here in 2002?

It was small. I think there was only four staff. We were very small so it’s very different now. There are 11 staff, and volunteer-wise, I don’t know how many we had then but now we have hundreds of regular volunteers.

Why has it grown so much?

There’s a couple of things. I think there’s a huge need out there and I think needs have grown but our capacity as an organization has grown. We’ve also worked really hard to make connections in the community so that when there are people who need something they can find us. There are so many non-profits out there doing such good work. The community that supports us is incredible. I can’t imagine what my role and my job would be like without the insane community support that we have. And people are so incredibly generous. They want to help and people want to make an impact with their dollars and their time. Part of our mission is to use the community to find places for them to make an impact and make people’s lives better. It’s a shared community that makes a community a better place.

Why was there a need for a larger facility?

We moved here because we wanted a place to be together and because we needed more space. We recently changed the food pantry model to allow people to use the food pantry as often as they needed to as opposed to once a month, which is most common. The discussion around (going from once a month to as needed) was how can we really help people. Sometimes they only need it once a month but people needed more because we were referring people to other food pantries. But that meant that we needed more food and that meant we were handling a greater amount of people so we just outgrew that (industrial park) space so fast once that happened.

Do you still have times when the food pantry is swamped, like at the end of the month?

There are certain times but it’s pretty steady across the weeks because people can come when they need it. We do our best to have a variety of protein sources like meat and dairy. We work really hard to have a lot of fresh vegetables. We have our own gardens in the summer so that we can really make sure we have lots of produce. It’s impossible to stay healthy off of just canned foods so its really important for us to have all of those resources.

What are some of the challenges for MOM?

Right now we’re working on a strategic plan to determine what some of our barriers are. One of them is people needing to use our services but not being able to get here. My goal for the next year is really starting to look at that. I feel that we have an opportunity to look at what we do from a different angle to see who could use our service but they can’t.

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