Many people know that Orion Family Services is dedicated to helping children, youth and families rise from challenges and barriers they face. But few know that the Wisconsin-based agency can trace its agency ministry roots to a story of perseverance and survival.
Before incorporating in 2001, Orion operated for 12 years as Sunburst Family Services (SFS), a branch of Sunburst Youth Homes (SYH) in Neillsville, WI. At its inception, Sunburst Family Services offered group home treatment adding foster home and in-home therapy service to its service array.
Our services were provided across 12 counties throughout southern Wisconsin serving approximately 300 children and 100 families annually.
When Sunburst Youth Homes suffered overwhelming financial losses and closed its doors in 2000, its board of directors encouraged Sunburst Family Services to become an independent agency, preserving its success and carrying on the Sunburst mission. According to Hugh Meyers, Executive Director in 2000, “we were desperately trying to figure out how to keep our part of the organization alive.”
However, staff faced a devastating blow when Sunburst Youth Home’s creditor recalled its loan and emptied the bank account. To regain control, the board encouraged another agency to step in and begin a new operation on the Neillsville campus, also providing permission to assume control of programming for Sunburst Family Services.
Faced with widespread job cuts and the loss of the Sunburst identity, agency leadership began working feverishly to develop a plan to maintain control of operations. An initial meeting with managers from the other agency was postponed so that work to secure funding and develop a business plan could begin. Driven to ensure the survival of the agency and faith that existing threats could be overcome, a new name was chosen with an eye for a name that would spring from the Sunburst title. Orion Family Services, one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky was born.
What happened next would set the trajectory for the new organization.
The agency looking to takeover programming scheduled a meeting with staff to discuss their recruitment and transition plan. Not a single staff member attended. This action communicated clearly that staff were committed to the survival of Sunburst (soon to be officially renamed Orion) and as a result, the other organization was forced to walk away.
With renewed determination and a business plan in place, Sunburst’s leadership began urgently searching for financial backing. A call was made to Sunburst’s former CEO, Kathryn Collins. Ms. Collins had remarried and was now living in Chicago with her husband, Tom Vanden Berk, CEO of UCAN (Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network). UCAN, like Sunburst, is a long-time United Church of Christ ministry agency serving children, youth, and families. 24 hours later UCAN pledged to help Orion be co-signing a line of credit and providing technical support for the startup.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of staff across the agency, the transition to Orion was seamless. Our 50 employees stayed on board with all maintaining existing salary and benefit levels. Every one of our county partners re-contracted with Orion and our state licensing agents fast-tracked our licensing and certification process. . Our kids and families experienced no disruption to their services. One year later, Orion secured its own financial arrangements.
Today, Orion continues to live its mission “dedicated to healing the minds and spirits of children and families” through the provision of skilled and compassionately delivered mental health and community-based services to children, youth, and families across southern Wisconsin.