Retired Social Worker Still Tirelessly Serves Wisconsin Communities

Lumen Christi Award Finalist Bluette Puchner from the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin

Divine intervention may very well be the only explanation for how a young girl raised in a troubled home without any presence of religion can grow up to be an extraordinary faith leader, loving mother, foster mom and a transformative force in the lives of countless at-risk kids.

Bluette Puchner serves the poor, tribal communities of northern Wisconsin. Tirelessly working within the school system and out in the community as a foster parent and as a guardian ad litem for children in the tribal courts of the St. Croix Band of Ojibwe, Puchner has quietly and immeasurably impacted thousands of children and their families.

For many years, Catholic Extension has supported ministry outreach to the Ojibwe peoples in the Diocese of Superior.

I’m on my knees every morning, praying for our country and for the kids of our country, because that is our future.”

Bluette Puchner

Puchner’s passion for helping at-risk children and families can be traced to growing up in a home without love and where she witnessed her mother’s day-to-day struggles.

She also was raised without religion until a meeting with a priest as a teenager opened her eyes to the power of God’s love. Today, her faith is never far from her mind. “I’m on my knees every morning, praying for our country and for the kids of our country, because that is our future,” she said. She was drawn to social work and together with her husband fostered 23 children over a 12-year period, in addition to raising three of their own. 

Passion born from difficult childhood

As a foster parent, Puchner would crisscross the state to get the children to doctors’ appointments, act as a surrogate parent to address problems at school and home and ensure they were well fed and cared for. It was her shoulder to lean on as they grew up and out of the system that these children remember so fondly, and how her love and support changed their lives.

One of the children they fostered was Native American.

“The young lady came from a horrific background,” Puchner explained. “Today, she’s a successful social worker with whom I am in frequent contact. Her story gives me so much hope for troubled kids of today.”

Involvement with the state’s foster care system exposed alarming truths: Many of Wisconsin’s Native American reservations had inadequate school systems, limited access to transportation and a lack of supportive social services. Amidst abject poverty in a large number of households, children were often left to fend for themselves, and teen pregnancy and drug use surged.

The guardian

Chatting with a friend one day about the plight of Native American kids, Puchner decided to get involved as a guardian ad litem for the St. Croix tribal council. It’s a demanding role that involves acting as the child’s advocate, making home visits, connecting with incarcerated parents or kids in juvenile detention, and reporting findings back to the court.

In short, Puchner was tasked with ensuring the children’s best interests are at the heart of the court proceedings. “I was one of three who signed on in May of that year,” she said. “By December, I was the only one left.” Puchner absorbed the council’s entire caseload—43 families, some with multiple children. She was undaunted. “I was learning so much from the tribal elders and even more from the kids. It was hard to gain their trust because I am not Native, but I was diligent and persevered.” Puchner recalled a turning point with one family.

“Frustrated, one of the elders said, ‘Who do you think you are telling me how to raise my grandchildren?’ I asked him to think about his goals for the children. And I told him mine were to keep them in school, keep them safe, healthy and away from abuse. From that moment on he accepted me and would teach me an Ojibwe word whenever I came to visit. More importantly, word spread that he respected me, and that improved my ability to work more closely with the children.”

Not slowing down

While others may slow down in retirement, Puchner’s commitment to the diocese and the families in her community has only increased. She is an active member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Webster, Wisconsin, a parish built with Catholic Extension’s help back in 1915.

I believe I have been called. I draw my strength on my knees, and God never lets me down.” 

Bluette Puchner

She also serves as ministry enrichment coordinator for the Diocese of Superior. And her passion to help children is stronger than ever. Her work on the state’s STRIVE (Students Taking Renewed Interest in the Value of Education) program has helped countless teens stay in school and work toward graduation. The program helps motivate students and gives them a path to a brighter future.

Many students enter the program with no credits, but under her tutelage, earn the credits they need to graduate. Puchner makes it clear that she is not just a social worker or a do-gooder. Everything that she is and does emanates from the love of God that she discovered as a teenager all those years ago. Perhaps that is why she has been such a great friend to so many troubled teens—she understands that transformation is possible when a young person discovers what it means to be truly loved.

When asked how she possibly manages to get it all done she replied, “I believe I have been called. I draw my strength on my knees, and God never lets me down.” 

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