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Washington Square building could become home for single mothers

SweetwaterNOW file photo

By Olivia Kennah May 19, 2022

GREEN RIVER — On December 26, 2019, the Green River community nearly lost a historical landmark when the Washington Square building went up in flames. Now, two years and five months later, a future has been outlined for the building.

Debra Moerke, a Casper resident, has announced her plans to restore the building and turn it into a transitional home for single mothers. While the 1950s side of the building will be the home for single moms, the 1920s side, which was the one impacted by the flames, would remain a place for offices and banquet halls for community use.

Along with being a transitional home, Moerke said the goal would be to have a program set up for the mothers to help them gain independence. The home will be known as the McKenzie Home, named after Moerke’s late granddaughter who was born to a single mother.

Wanting to stay true to the history of the Washington Square building, however, she said she wants to keep the Washington name as well. Therefore the business and events side of the building will still be known as Washington Square.

Why Green River?

During an informational meeting at the Expedition Island pavilion Saturday, May 14, Moerke said she understands some people may wonder why a resident from Casper is wanting to start this kind of project in Green River. She explained that Moerke’s husband has a long family history in Green River, and two of their daughters live in Green River, giving the Moerke’s an investment in the community.

In September 2019, Moerke’s 5-year-old granddaughter McKenzie passed away in a battle with cancer. She said that as she drove past the Washington Square building on her way to the cemetery for the memorial service, she was struck by the building.

“I was just enamored by this building,” Moerke said.

There’s something about this building that I’m supposed to pay attention to.

~ Debra Moerke

Months later her daughter told her about the fire.

“My heart just dropped,” she said.

Moerke started doing research on the building and found the property owner, Hector Castillon. When he told her that he was not in the position to repair the building, she decided to help. Moerke spent 18 years fostering over 140 children, was the director for a crisis center, served in jail and prison ministry, and worked as a jail officer in Phoenix for a few years. She realized that throughout these experiences, she had always been working with people who were going through some sort of crisis and devastation, and she has always seen the light in those experiences.

“Now there is a possibility of a future and possibility of a new use for this building,” she said.

Washington School in the 1930s. (Sweetwater County Historical Museum photo)
Soapbox racers at Washington School in 1950. (Sweetwater County Historical Museum photo)

McKenzie Home and the Single Mothers Program

Moerke stressed that the McKenzie Home would not just be a place for single mothers to stay for a while, but rather would be a program for them to follow. She said the program would not be so strict that it makes the women feel like they’re being punished but that it will be organized. Moerke said the women could stay for anywhere from a month, to six months, to a year.

During the informational meeting, Moerke explained what the McKenzie Home is a program to house and help pregnant women or women with children to gain independence who don’t have support are anywhere to go. There will be a caseworker assigned to the program who will help place women into the home and help them gain independence.

In a purpose statement, Moerke wrote, “women who find themselves as a single parent often fall between the cracks in our society. If they don’t need special treatment due to drugs or alcohol, or a safe-house environment, they often feel there is little support or help for them to become strong and independent in their community. Many times, they will turn to unhealthy alternatives putting themselves and their children in jeopardy.” 

Moerke said her goal is provide a place for women to gain stability and independence before they end up in one of those unhealthy situations. Therefore, the McKenzie Home is not a treatment facility or a safe house.

“Can we catch the girls before they need one of those?” Moerke asked.

The project is in preliminary stages, but Moerke knows the McKenzie Home will have 11 to 12 rooms for women and their kids to stay in until they can transition into a more permanent living space. Each room will have it’s own half bath and a mini fridge. There will then be a communal kitchen area for the families to cook in. 

This design plan shows the current plan for the first floor of the McKenzie Home and Washington Square building.

The project will take a lot of time, effort, and money, but she has every faith that this project can come to fruition within three years. The estimated cost for the restoration of the building and to get the program off the ground is about $10 million. However, she said there are several grants to help with restoration for these old historic buildings. 

The goal is to restore as much of the 1920s architecture and charm as possible. The design planner John Gudger said that while designing the building, he is thinking of the specific needs and functions of the program, while also working out how to maintain the original aesthetic of the building. 

Moerke added that the primary source of funding will come from fundraisers, and the money from the office spaces and event spaces in the 1920s section of the building will go back into the building. 

This design plan shows the current plan for the second floor of the Washington Square building.

Community Involvement Needed

While Moerke has gathered about 15 people to sit on an advisory and steering board in Casper, she stressed the importance of local individuals taking this over. 

While several local organizations such as the Department of Family Services, CLIMB Wyoming, the YWCA, and more are excited about the possibility of this transitional home, Moerke said it is going to take a lot of community involvement to become a reality. 

Examples of community involvement that Moerke gave included people coming in and giving cooking classes or teaching the women how to change a tire and more. Community members could also donate or adopt a room, as well as serve on the advisory board. 

For those interested in finding out how they can help, email Debra Moerke at dj_moerke@yahoo.com. For more information on the mission and goals of the McKenzie Home, check below.

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