In Serving Others, Karla Hein Considers Lessons from Her Past a Present

Friday, December 8, 2023
Catholic Charities Warming Center staff
Karla Hein, third from left, considers it her job to serve the staff at Catholic Charities Warming Center, where she serves as coordinator.

As the coordinator of the Catholic Charities Warming Center in La Crosse, Karla (Olson) Hein ’10 welcomes guests unconditionally. That’s the warming center mission, of course, but for her it’s personal. She gets where the warming center guests are at because she has had some of the same struggles in her life, with one big difference: “Somebody loved me when I was at my worst,” she said.

Growing up in Onalaska, she was a bright student, getting good grades despite her eating disorder and burgeoning alcohol abuse, which started when she was 14. By the time she graduated early from high school, she had experienced stints in both an eating disorder clinic and alcohol rehab treatment.

Karla Hein
Karla Hein is starting her second season as coordinator of the Catholic Charities Warming Center in La Crosse.

That first attempt at getting sober didn’t take, and her drinking problem was a big contributing factor to her having to drop out of Viterbo without getting a degree. She wanted to be a high school history teacher and coach, and she remembers her years at Viterbo fondly, partly because her professors did everything they could to help her succeed and partly for the lifelong friendships she formed during her three years on the soccer team.

“Everybody was so good to me at Viterbo. No matter what I did, if I was honest with the professors they would help me get on track,” Hein said.

Eventually, though, her alcohol abuse got to be too much to continue her education. “I thought I would die before I was 30. That was my plan,” Hein said. “I was going to party, party, party until my ride was over.”

So many of the unsheltered people who come to the warming center have their struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. “I get where they are at, personally, but even if I hadn’t walked in their shoes that wouldn’t matter here. We all approach our guests like this: ‘You are exactly who you are, I accept you, and I see you,’” Hein said. “We’re just going to love them until they learn to love themselves. That’s my favorite part of the warming center: we don’t turn anybody away.”

When Hein first started working with her husband, Justin, at the Econolodge when it was used to shelter members of the homeless population during the pandemic, she admits she had a fear of the guests. That dissipated when she realized that there was just one main difference: somebody had loved her when she was at her worst.

“My mom always saved me. My parents never lost hope for me,” Hein said. “I’d never been around people whose family had not done that for them.”

Hein has been sober since Jan. 12, 2006, which was before the first of her four sons were born. They’ve never known her to be not sober, but she says they know she has been through some dark times when she wasn’t. They know that before she got sober, she was charged with a felony in conjunction with her second drunken driving conviction (nobody was physically hurt).

Karla Hein and Johnny Wadzinski
Not only has Karla Hein run eight marathons, she also is deceptively strong, Here she picks up longtime warming center staff member Johnny Wadzinski. Hein said he's the true heart of the warming center.

She could have fought the felony charge, but she pled guilty, done making excuses and ready to own up to her mistakes. She was lucky to get a tough but creative probation officer who let do part of her required community service in parenting classes.

When she got sober and was ready to go back to college, she knew her felony meant she’d never realize her dream of being a teacher. She was determined to get a degree, though, so she came back to Viterbo, taking night classes while working and caring for her first son. She gave birth to her second son during spring break, but never missed a class.

Hein’s probation officer also allowed her to count running in fundraising runs as community service hours. Her first was the inaugural Steppin’ Out in Pink, and that got her started in long-distance running. So far she’s run eight marathons and one ultramarathon, running her first marathons the same weekend she graduated from Viterbo with a degree in organizational management (and a minor in sociology).

Her running obsession also provided a way for her to channel grief about her father’s suicide into something good. Her father, Mike “Oly” Olson, ran an illegal sports betting operation for decades before he found his true calling: Oly’s Mini Donut Express. After he took his own life 10 years ago, Hein launched the Mini Donut Half Marathon to honor his memory and raise money and awareness about suicide prevention.

Hein has worked in a wide variety of jobs after graduating from Viterbo in 2010, from child care to yoga/fitness instructor to telephonic debt collector to running a trampoline park, often doing more than one job at once while raising her boys. Whatever she does, she has always taken an all-in approach. She’s learning now, though, that all-or-nothing isn’t always good.

Karla Hein at the warming center

Inspired by the volunteers at the warming center, last summer Hein began working on a Viterbo Master of Arts in Servant Leadership degree, and it’s been an eye opener for her. Effective leaders and especially servant leaders, she has learned, need to devote time and attention to the needs of themselves and their families. So instead of working the 80 hours a week she did at the warming center last year, she’s now making the warming center a day job to make time for family life.

“It’s been a really hard process for me to not always be doing something. I was always ‘Karla doing,’ not ‘Karla being,’” she said. “When I was hoping to be a teacher, I always said I wanted to teach life. Servant leadership is the closest I’ve ever had to somebody teaching that.”

Father Conrad Targonski
Father Conrad Targonski, OFM, Viterbo's chaplain, can be found most mornings cleaning up at the Catholic Charities Warming Center.

Hein sees her warming center role as serving the staff and volunteers there (a few of whom have been guests there in the past) so that they can best serve their guests. “I always tell my staff that I’m here to make them happy. I serve them,” she said.

The thing is, she really doesn’t need to tell them. They already know.

Carrie Jick, who graduated from Viterbo in 2012 with a degree in social work and a psychology minor, has worked at the warming center for three years and is a big fan of Hein. “She’s very kind and compassionate to our guests and so understanding,” Jick said. “She’s also a great leader to staff and volunteers. She loves teamwork and wants to hear input from everybody.”

Hein also gets high marks from Viterbo’s chaplain, Fr. Conrad Targonski, OFM, who can be found most mornings cleaning at the warming center with Bruce Simones, former owner of the Recovery Room.

“More than anything else, she cares,” said Fr. Conrad. “She’s very much of a leader and a Franciscan at heart. It’s a whole different atmosphere in here now. She’s very caring and very authentic. She’s the real thing.”