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So that one day

a hundred years from now

another sister will not have to

dry her tears wondering

where in history

she lost her voice.

Roxie Karelis, executive director of The Refuge Network, shared this poem at the first Women’s Empowerment Fundraising Luncheon on Sept. 30 at Maranatha Assembly of God in Forest Lake. She said the poem is a call to action that “our daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters never lose their voice.”

The event featured talks by Karelis, domestic abuse survivors and Cambridge native Joan Steffend, and raised money for Family Pathways’ Refuge Network, which assists victims/survivors of domestic violence in Isanti, Chisago and Kanabec counties with shelter, a 24-hour crisis line, community and legal advocacy, the men’s StepUp program, parenting classes and support groups.

“Domestic violence is an atrocity that must be eradicated,” Karelis said, "motivation and success – and we can’t let that happen.” 

She noted that domestic violence affects the entire community, not just those living in the home with abuse. Violence affects children who witness it throughout the rest of their lives.

“Without intervention, children are at higher risk for school failure, substance abuse, repeat victimization and, perhaps most tragically, perpetrating violence later in life,” Karelis said. “We have to stop that from happening.”


The first Margaret Johnson-Bar award

The luncheon was also the setting for bestowing the first-ever Margaret Johnson-Bar Award, named in honor of the founder of The Refuge Network. 

Recipients were Suzanne Butzow and Colette Gandolet for their donation of a 10-acre plot of land with a turn-of-the-century farmhouse sitting atop a hill overlooking a small lake, as well as their continued support of the organization.

“Their generous donation, after an addition to the home, is now Black Dog Hill Shelter,” noted Shelter Manager Char Weidendorf, “which houses women and children who have left behind abusive relationships in the hopes of moving forward with peace of mind, guidance from our advocates and the knowledge that there are people who care what happens to them.” 

Butzow and Gandolet purchased the property in 1999, and when they decided to give it up, “the universe stepped forward,” Butzow said at the event, making way for them to donate it to the nonprofit, and with a generous grant from United Way, to expand the house into a 15-bedroom shelter. Black Dog Hill Shelter opened in 2009 and has protected 1,367 women and children since then. 

The two women have also supported the work of The Refuge Network by giving their time, talents and connections. Through the years, they have played Santa Claus by purchasing Christmas gifts for those residing at the shelter, helped fund the installation of a concrete driveway and parking area there, helped fund a renovation of the shelter last year, and spear-headed the Pajama Pride Project, which provides all new shelter residents with a care package containing new pajamas, flip flops, personal hygiene items and a cuddly toy. Recently, they helped raise funds for a new roof on the shelter.


Celebrity Joan Steffend lends her voice

Cambridge native Joan Steffend, known for her years as a KARE-11 news anchor and host of HGTV’s “Decorating Cents” show, was keynote speaker and shared the philosophy of her book “...and she sparkled.” 

“I grew up feeling like there was a hole inside of me that never quite got filled,” Steffend said, noting she spent most of her life trying to feel like she belonged, performing to the expectations of others.

She participated in theater through high school and college, but it wasn’t satisfying. 

She went to a job interview for a news agency. “I pretended to be Ron Magers,” Steffend said, adding that she got the job with no experience except for acting like Magers. “I immediately felt this wasn’t right for me.”

She spent 17 years as a news anchor, but started dreaming about doing something else. She went to a book club one night – the only time she’s ever attended one – and someone at the book club asked if anyone would be willing to help with a home and garden show. 

Steffend decided to go for it, and spent 10 years at HGTV as the host of Decorating Cents. Although she loved it, it still didn’t feel right, according to Steffend. On the plane ride home from a vacation, Steffend decided she was going to write her biography and figure out what was wrong with her. “It was as though the words fell off the pen,” she said, “almost as if the story was being written for me,” noting the story she wrote came out like a metaphor for her life. 

But when she got home the story was set aside as she went through the hardest five years of her life – a divorce and helping her sister as she died of cancer. 

During that time, Steffend noted she was given the best gift from her sister – teaching her how to hold her sister’s boundaries regarding her wishes during and after her death. While Steffend was “the ultimate people-pleaser,” she learned that if she could hold her sister’s boundaries, she could also do it for herself.

Steffend shared that epiphany in her book, which is a metaphor for life about being born unique but having to change in order to fit in, and eventually being able to get back to being the unique person one is meant to be.

Her message at the event was, “be who you are – brilliant, unique, perfect. Share who you are – brilliant unique, perfect. And then change the world.”


Final encouragement to empowerment 

Following Steffend’s speech, a survivor of domestic abuse shared her story of finding herself in an abusive relationship and what advocates at The Refuge Network did to help her regain her freedom and be safe.

“They’re always there. My advocate is amazing; she’s my angel,” the survivor said, noting she would not be where she is today if it were not for The Refuge Network. Advocates supported her as she faced her abuser in court, learned to be safe in her own home again and attended support groups to regain her empowerment.

Karelis closed out the luncheon with her talk on the need to continue the organization’s work until domestic violence is a thing of the past. “Don’t let your daughters, nieces, granddaughters or great-granddaughters look back,” she said, “and find they lost their voice on our watch.”



To support The Refuge Network call (651) 674-8040 or visit