Grace Place brings Morning Music, and hope, to area families

TCR/KRISTIN BURDEY Grace Place Ministries Executive Director Carla Burton entertains the parents and children at the Morning Music Program held each Wednesday morning at Grace Place on Mill Street.
Kristin Burdey

Families with young children in the community are invited to join in the Morning Music program at Grace Place, a weekly time of age-appropriate songs and activities each Wednesday from 10-11:30 a.m. The fall session runs through November 20, and a new winter session will begin on January 29, 2020.

Carla Burton of Winona, founder and executive director of Grace Place Ministries, cheerfully welcomed children into the Grace Place building at 300 South Mill Street on a recent Wednesday morning. The building was a flurry of activity, with parents, grandparents, babies, toddlers, and school-aged children all participating in the plethora of activities the day had to offer.

“[Morning music] includes the very best of what I’ve been trained to do,” said Burton, who holds a degree in Elementary Education, including certification in both Pre-K and Kindergarten, plus years of experience working with young children both at Redeemer Lutheran and Riverway Learning Center in Winona.

In addition to a wealth of knowledge and experience, Burton brings an  understanding of the importance of the early years in child development; that quality time spent with parents and grandparents has a profound impact on a child, socially and emotionally. “Oftentimes parents are isolated and in need of support. It is a lot different raising kids today.”

Burton, herself a single mother of three grown children, had not so much as a thought of Grace Place 28 years ago when a chance encounter changed the way she looked at the world. “I met a young woman who was a high school dropout,” she recalled. “She was pregnant, and her family was not supportive.” Burton’s heart was moved with compassion as she realized that there was a whole world of young families in need that would never walk through the doors of her school.

Burton knew that families such as this woman’s were but a symptom of the bigger problems in a hurting world. She knew in her heart that there had to be a better way, so she prayed. A vision of Grace Place was the answer that she received, and thus began the journey of a lifetime. “I was not planning on this,” Burton laughed, as she was a mom of three small boys at the time.

However, ready or not, her vision became a reality. By gathering the support of both corporations and individuals, Burton formed a non-profit organization, and the work of Grace Place Ministries began.

The first endeavor Grace Place embarked upon was the purchase of a house in Winona, which would allow young pregnant women a place to live and get back on their feet once the baby was born. Grace Place lived out this project for ten years, a period in which Burton noticed a disheartening trend amongst the women they were serving; too often, upon leaving the transitional housing, the women would return to the same unhealthy environment that had escaped from.

Grace Place then began shifting their focus toward developing programs that would stay with these families, specifically targeting those with children in the birth to age five demographics. It was clear the impact that was made when women had greater opportunities for individual and group mentoring, and a safe place to gather. Grace Place purchased a building on Second Street in Winona to help with initiating these new programs, with the hope to return to the issue of shelter again someday.

Grace Place presently operates thrift stores in Winona and Rushford to both support the ministry and provide goods for people in need. “I have always used music with my kids,” Burton said. Grace Place Ministries offers a number of programs for families of young children, including Morning Music and Godly Play, both of which offer age-appropriate play in a safe and structured environment.

Morning Music sessions usually begin casually, with families trickling in and easing into the play area with their children. Toddlers play with hand-held percussion instruments and board puzzles with animal sounds. A mother practices letters and numbers with her preschooler while her husband visits with other dads outside of the play area. Another child diligently prepares a meal for his mother, presenting her with a plate of wooden toy food, which prompts an enthusiastic high-five. A couple of older kids from the neighborhood come in and say hi to the kids over the wall surrounding the play area, some waiting for mom to get done working with a younger sibling.

About twenty minutes in, a time of group activity is ushered in with the singing of a clean-up song, which encourages all children to help put the toys away, a tactic that families can implement in their own homes.

“People think that small children don’t have attention spans,” said Burton, but with sessions lasting ninety minutes, she knows that to be just a myth. During that hour and a half, children will learn songs and games that teach values such as manners, respect, and compassion, as well as how to interact and work together in community.

Specific activities vary based on the youngest group members on a given day, but may include kinesthetic endeavors such as stretching or learning a dance, songs that require singing along or doing actions, or more restful activities such as reading a story. “All the activities we do are helping with life skills, not only for the child but the parents as well,” Burton said.

Another dimension that makes the Grace Place programs unique is the Christian faith of its founder. “There are a lot of great programs out there, but Grace Place can leave God’s Word in it,” Burton explained. “We aren’t ever pushy about it. Anyone can come to morning music and feel comfortable.” She understands the importance of helping people in ways that extend beyond merely physical means, although immediate need is frequently where people are first met. “When you’re helping people, you need to give them a drink of water first,” she analogizes. “But it’s so important to also share in the joy, the hope, the relationships.”

Music has proven a beautiful and effective way to build a bridge between people of different ages and demographics, and it is something Burton, guitar in hand, utilizes each week to bring joy and laughter to every family that walks through the doors of Grace Place. “My work is so fun,” she declared with a genuine smile.

Burton has been working with Saint Mary’s University Professor Eric Heukeshoven to produce a collection of songs sung by Burton, along with the parents and children of Grace Place, and a CD of some of her most beloved children’s songs should be available before Christmas.