Working in collaboration with the Lincoln County Homelessness Task Force and the Warming Center Committee, the Merrill Area United Way announced the forthcoming Community Warming Center opening expected for Nov. 1, 2014.  
The Community Warming Center will operate under the umbrella of the Merrill Area United Way, a 501 C-3 tax exempt organization. United Way will serve as the fiscal agent, providing administrative, fiscal and fiduciary services to the collaborative project. Early indications were given that several Merrill area churches will participate as volunteer partners to run the operation. Operation of the Community Warming Center will require numerous volunteers.  
According to Dee Olsen, Executive Director of the Merrill Area United Way, “The United Way Board of Directors entered into a lease agreement with the Merrill Housing Authority for use of the former Lincoln County Bank Auto Bank area to include the building and the canopy area.” 
Although this property appears smaller than it is, the building provides about 800 square feet with a main level and lower level. The lower level includes a kitchen area, allowing the warming center to offer hot and cold beverages, as well as light snacks. Meals will not be provided. A Warming Center is not permitted to allow beds (not without zoning complications). Therefore, this Center will provide large comfortable lounge chairs which were donated through Aspirus Hospital. A few other donations have already been received.  
The Warming Center Committee will begin work to prepare the building during September and October. While the official opening will be dependent on having the volunteer commitments necessary to operate the facility, it is the Committee’s hope to open Nov. 1 and run through April 1. The facility will open at 8 p.m. and will remain open until 7:30 a.m. 
“Any organization, church group, or individual that would like to volunteer call or contact the Merrill Area United Way office until we have a Volunteer Coordinator,” Olsen said. “Volunteer training will take place prior to the opening of the center and will periodically be repeated for new volunteers coming into the operation.”
Olsen noted, “The Community Warming Center was conceived at the Lincoln County Homelessness Task Force meetings, and developed and organized by the Warming Center sub-committee.” 
The Committee researched the operations of several other facilities in the central Wisconsin area, both warming centers and warming shelters. They will continue to develop the policies and procedures for operations prior to the opening. This project was made possible, however, due to the cooperation and assistance of the Merrill Housing Authority Board of Directors and Executive Director, LaDonna Fermanich. 
“It was felt that when we encounter people in need of the shelter, that we can identify opportunities to assist them into some permanent, low-income housing as well as identify other resources that will be helpful to getting them on the right track,” Olsen said. 
Committee members Denis McCarthy and Don Heyel will take the lead on refurbishing the interior of the building with assistance from Ken Adams, Habitat from Humanity and perhaps a few youth groups. The building will need cleaning, new flooring, painting, and other minor changes in the overhaul. A brief Open House will be held for the public prior to the official opening.
“Various community agencies are reporting homeless counts into a data base managed by Art Lersch, UWEX.  These numbers are reviewed regularly and substantiate the need for having a Warming Center in the Merrill area,” stated Jeff Sargent, Executive Director of North Central Community Action Program and Chairman of the Lincoln County Homelessness Task Force. 
Olsen concluded that volunteers are the most critical need right now, but in addition, monetary donations and supplies are also needed. For further information or to help fulfill the needs of making this warming center functional, please contact the Merrill Area United Way office, 715-536-2016 or united813@frontier.com.  Note:  the Merrill Area United Way office is only part-time, but calls and e-mails will get a response as soon as possible. Financial support can be mailed to Merrill Area United Way, Community Warming Center Fund, P. O. Box 813, Merrill WI   54452.