The longer Olivia Konrardy-Buchal lives, the bigger dent she might make in the world’s problems, as she develops the habit of chipping away at them — one crisis at a time.

The 11-year-old Onalaska girl has established a tradition of asking people to donate to designated causes instead of giving her presents on her birthday, with the most recent beneficiary being the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness.

Collaborative officials were so impressed with Olivia’s initiative that they made her an unofficial member, and she readily accepted the task of designing thank you cards to send to donors, said Julie McDermid, the collaborative’s project manager.

“If people need help, I always feel like I should try to help,” explained Olivia, whose birthday is Dec. 30 and who said people have responded well since she conceived her custom four years ago.

“They were excited — they all helped. Every year, I donate something. Last year, it was the (Coulee Region) Humane Society” in Onalaska, said Olivia, a fifth-grader at Eagle Bluff Elementary School.

Olivia’s 10th birthday donations totaled $90, and the year before that, her collection went to orphans in another country. Her $100 tally for the collaborative was the top so far.

Card: 'Thanks for leading way'

“I think everybody should be treated equally,” Olivia said.

Although Olivia’s favorite school subject is science, she doesn’t plan to go into that field, taking a different road diverging in the wood.

“I want to be a pastor,” she said simply.

A member of First Lutheran Church in Onalaska, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Olivia said she has enjoyed Sunday school but also is excited about confirmation training this year.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things,” she said. “It’s more stories than just doing crafts.”


The daughter of Kelly and Tina Konrardy-Buchal, Olivia is handy with the crafts, if the colorful cards she has designed for the collaborative are any indication. They feature messages such as “Thank you for your generous acts” and a particularly telling slogan, “Thank you for leading the way.”

But the humble Olivia downplays her artistic talents, saying, “I’m not that good.”

She plans to design more cards, and the collaborative intends to have them duplicated to send to donors, McDermid said.

Having the young girl as an adjunct member and producing cards is “a neat way of showing that our community has really begun to change the conversation around homelessness,” the project manager said.

Collaborative hits families target

The collaborative just hit another milestone in its wrestling match with homelessness, with the hope of pinning it to the mat for good, McDermid said.

Mike Tighe

The collaborative beat its original target date of Jan. 31 by more than a week to find housing for 10 homeless families within 100 days, she said.

The collaborative, formed last year with the help of New York housing consultant and homelessness expert Erin Healy, sets 100-day targets in what it calls sprints to achieve goals.

The 10 families range from three to five members, and the group has succeeded in housing almost 100 people in its three sprints, including veterans last fall and winter and chronically homeless individuals in the winter and spring.

The collaborative has made those strides largely with the work of volunteers from a broad range of stakeholders, including social and human service agencies, city and county officials and committees, law enforcement, veterans and vets organizations, faith communities and businesses.

The group hired two full-time outreach workers/housing navigators not only to be more readily available to people who need help but also to ease the burden on the volunteers who have toiled for so much time beyond their daytime jobs.

The positions, originally intended to be part time and funded with a private donation, were expanded to full time courtesy of a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, McDermid said.

In training last week to be those outreach workers were Barb Pollack of La Crosse and Doreen Averbeck of West Salem.

“I know what a great need there is out there, and I am drawn to help,” said Pollack, who previously worked for the Great Rivers 2-1-1 crisis line and continues to work part-time as a La Crosse County crisis responder.

Mike Tighe

“Every day I dealt with that,” she said, adding that she expects the outreach will “help the community get in between” circumstances that might lead to homelessness and vulnerable individuals.

Contact, develop relationships

“Everybody has a story, and everybody has different needs, she said. “You’ve got to have a relationship, a first contact, to meet people where they are at.”

Averbeck, who has held a variety of service and retail jobs, said, “We want to be on the ground to help it get off the ground. We want to be able to help them in place, where they feel comfortable.”

Mike Tighe

Along those lines, the pair’s training has included visiting sites such as the La Crosse Warming Center, the Franciscan Hospitality House, The Salvation Army, RAVE and other places people gather in search of companionship and/or services.

“We’re not going to be in the office. We’ll be going to them,” Pollack said, to which Averbeck added, “We want to break down barriers.”

Eventually, the collaborative’s offices in the building that also houses the Warming Center and some Catholic Charities offices at 413 S. Third St. will have a dedicated phone line for the outreach workers, who also will attend community events and visit jails, hospitals and care centers, McDermid said.

The outreach workers will be able to help people find services to avoid homelessness or, once they have secured housing, to prevent them from sliding back, she said.


The “housing navigator” part of their job descriptions is intended to help people connect with affordable housing, obtain furniture if they don’t have any and get settled in, McDermid said.

Only one of the people the collaborative helped secure housing has not worked out, McDermid said, but she and others are keeping tabs on that person.

Pollack, who has a home in Onalaska but lives at 3 Rivers Scholar House in La Crosse as a mentor/house mother for the single parents who live there while attending college, said that role “is dear to my heart. It’s very important to have housing, and safe housing, so when singling parents are off in class, they don’t have to worry” about their children.

“It lets them reinvent their life, to give them a second time in life,” she said. “That’s a gift.”