As Brenda Buxman, a Chippewa Falls woman whose eyes shine through her wire-rimmed glasses when she smiles, sits with her daughter inside a café, a woman approaches the two and begins to speak. Despite having never met, the woman opens up to the two about the difficulties she is facing as a homeless person.
“She just started talking to me out of the blue. It was really odd,” Buxman said. “She told me that they were staying at a shelter in Eau Claire, but they were only given 30 days before she had to find other housing and that is nearly impossible.”
The woman left Buxman and her daughter stunned. How could anyone, Buxman thought, be expected to save up for both a housing deposit and rent in only one month?
“We have a lot of awesome programs in Eau Claire for shelters and things of that nature, but those are just kind of like Band-Aids on the problem,” Buxman said. “Nothing really solves the issue.”
This conversation, Buxman said, and the revelations she had afterward, became a turning point in her life. Motivated by her Christian faith, Buxman decided to found both the organization Warm Hearts Warm Homes to provide housing to people in need, and Jewelstone Café and Waffle Bar to garner financial support.
Buxman moved to the Chippewa Valley from the Madison area to study social work at UW-Eau Claire, where she met her husband, Wyeth Buxman. She worked in social work for several years, but then went back to school to become a registered nurse. Fifteen years later, Buxman said she decided to take action and help the homeless community, with the support of her husband and now 16 and 18-year-old daughters.
“My daughters actually grew up with several children who were in kind of the same situation as the woman we met,” Buxman said. “So, in just standing by, you know, the parents of those families and seeing how difficult the situation was really opened my eyes to the problem.”
According to a study of homelessness in Wisconsin, there were 669 people served in an Eau Claire county Emergency Shelter in 2016. The majority of those served were experiencing homelessness. According to the study, within the Eau Claire school District 369 students found themselves without a permanent home during the 2016-17 school year.
The driving motivator behind this work, Buxman said, is her faith. She said the parable of talents inspired her. In the biblical passage three men are given talents. Two go out and use their talents to gain more, while one hides his in the sand and does nothing.
“I asked myself, ‘How do I really help people? What do I really do for others?’” Buxman said. “Am I hiding my talent in the sand?”
Buxman then came up with the idea for WHWH , which would offer housing to struggling families. The organization will also help families to pay for schooling that would eventually give them a job that would break the cycle of poverty, Buxman said.
“I thought if I can somehow help the families without housing to help pay their rent while they’re going to school,” Buxman said. “They can finish school and get a job and then move on from there and be financially independent for the rest of their lives.”
To accomplish this goal, Buxman said, she knew she needed a way to raise the money. In September of 2018, she opened Jewelstone Café and Waffle Bar, whose proceeds go directly into funding for WHWH.
Buxman’s daughter Miciah Mills, a first-year student at Concordia University, said Buxman initially had to wait before putting her ideas into motion, as the family did not have the finances at the time. When she did open the business, it was somewhat of a risky move.
“She took a leap of faith and stopped nursing and opened up the café,” Mills said. “I would say my mom does have a better trust and she does believe God will get her through.”
Through the opening of Jewelstone, Mills said her family have grown closer together. The idea for waffles was inspired by her family, who had a tradition of making Saturday morning breakfast.
“I would say that we’re all getting closer,” Mills said. “At times it can be pretty stressful, but when we’re working in the café we all have to help one another and communicate.”
Jewelstone has amassed customers who have a genuine love for the café, which Buxman said is set up to encourage people to stay off their phones and delve into conversation. One such customer was Dani Downing, who was hired to work at Jewelstone after she and her friends became regulars.
“I know that in the area we’re not necessarily lacking assistance and help, it just needs more,” Downing said. “It’s nice that it’s a local charity, we know it’s going back to the community you’re in and a part of.”
So far, the restaurant is still in its funding stages for the organization. Buxman said she wants to have a year’s worth of revenue saved for a family’s housing before she begins the process of finding a family. She has been working with area churches and the human services of Eau Claire County.
“I really wanted to do something to help others in my life and not just go live by myself,” Buxman said. “And after a bit of soul-searching, I think I’ve found what that something’s meant to be.”