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Schmoll to step down as executive director of Safe Avenues in Willmar, Minn.

“When I was staying at the shelter, I made the decision that someday I was going to be a director of a shelter,” Connie Schmoll told the Tribune in an interview. She has led the local shelter for more than a decade but will step down at month’s end. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

One of the main forces behind Safe Avenues of Willmar will be leaving after more than 12 years with the nonprofit organization.

Connie Schmoll, executive director of Safe Avenues, will step down May 31. Carrie Buddy, Safe Avenues' criminal justice intervention coordinator, has been named the interim executive director.

As Safe Avenues prepares for a future without Schmoll, Buddy said Schmoll would be missed by many.

"Connie is such a go-getter," Buddy said. "She has done amazing things for Safe Avenues. She's great at identifying a need and going after it. Our clients have always been her driving force."

But Schmoll wasn't always so empowered. After staying at the shelter, then known as Shelter House, with her four young children, Schmoll said she decided to go back to school nearly 20 years after she had graduated from high school.

"When I was staying at the shelter, I made the decision that someday I was going to be a director of a shelter," Schmoll said. "The advocates here helped me talk about my decision with my husband and secure his support for my schooling and career."

She interned with Shelter House and was named director of a domestic violence program in Hutchinson soon after she graduated. She led that program for five years before the executive director of Shelter House resigned.

"I got a lot of calls to come be the director here, and I said no about five times," Schmoll said. "I prayed about it quite a bit, and it became very clear I had two goals I needed to accomplish in Willmar."

Those goals -- marketing Shelter House to increase community involvement and to collaborate with the area churches -- soon became part of a bigger plan. When she took the job in 2000, she quickly realized the need for a new shelter.

"I started Oct. 20, 2000, and on Oct. 21 I realized we needed a new building," Schmoll said. "I knew our facility wouldn't keep working."

It took five years to get a new shelter. During that time, Schmoll said she didn't know if the building would actually be built.

"Afterwards, I had many community leaders tell me they had believed we wouldn't be able to pull the funds together," she said. "But every day while we were still fundraising, I would drive past the land we had already purchased and prayed to God that he would help us get the building built."

Schmoll also guided the non-profit organization through a name and logo change in 2010.

"We realized there were many people who weren't using our services because the name Shelter House implied they had to stay at the shelter, which wasn't true," Schmoll said. "We wanted people to know we have many avenues to safety, which is why we are now Safe Avenues."

Schmoll has lead Safe Avenues through all the changes it has gone through, said Susan Engholm, a member of the Board of Directors for more than four years.

"She has navigated Safe Avenues so well, especially with this economy and the changing culture," Engholm said. "Safe Avenues is three times the size it was 12 years ago, so it's almost like she's working for a different company. Her leadership has shown through."

Cheryl Braun, who has been a member of the Board of Directors for nearly two years, said Schmoll's dedication has always impressed her.

"She is always there, making sure all of their programs go well," Braun said. "You can feel the love Connie has for the people and what she's doing there."

As Schmoll started preparing to leave Safe Avenues in 2012, she wanted to stabilize funding, something she started working on more than a year ago, Buddy said.

"She secured funding for the next five years of programs," Buddy said.

Buddy said Schmoll had two final goals before leaving Safe Avenues.

"She wanted to get a funding development plan secured that would focus more on local funding since state funding continues to decrease, and she wanted to get a good strategic plan in place," Buddy said.

Getting those two plans in place gave Schmoll the peace of mind she needed to move onto the next chapter of her life, she said.

"This is what made it possible for me to move on, knowing the program is strong," Schmoll said. "I love the agency. I'm not leaving forever; it'll always be in my heart. But it was time for me to pass on the ropes."

Even though Schmoll won't be a part of Safe Avenues anymore, her presence will still be felt, Buddy said.

"Connie's work has been instrumental in preparing us to continue to grow in the future," she said. "I can't stress enough just how much she did for us. She poured her heart and soul into everything she did here."