For Charlene Mouille, “one big happy family” means something entirely different than for most people.
Mouille (pronounced “moo-lay”), husband Jay, and children have lived in Waunakee’s Southbridge neighborhood since 2008. A year and a half ago, her parents also moved in with them.
“People tell me, ‘You’re such a good person for letting them move in with you’,” said Mouille. “For me it was never a question. Until I was 8, my parents lived on my great grandparents’ property to help out. Later my grandparents lived with them. That’s just what you do.” It also is consistent with her beliefs as a Mormon, which emphasizes “families are forever.”
Her extended family gets even bigger at holidays, celebrated not only with her parents, who adopted her as a baby, but also with her biological father, stepmother, and sisters and half-brothers. Mouille is the oldest of seven siblings on both sides of the family.
She always knew she was adopted, but in 2006 got a surprise phone call from biological sister Jenny Ripley, a Waunakee photographer.
“She was looking to connect their family with the daughter who had been given up for adoption—and that was me. She knew my birthday and what hospital I was born in and found me through research.”
Mouille found out her biological parents went to high school in Pardeeville. When pregnant, her mother lived with her brother in California, where Mouille was born and grew up. Eventually her biological parents married and had two other children.
Her adoption and a childhood accident in which she received severe burns served as one of her greatest personal challenges as an introverted child.
“I had cosmetic insecurity. Growing up, my hair was always difficult and I had to cover certain spots. I was really, really shy. Plus, being adopted, I was not sure where I fit even though I had a lovely family,” Mouille said.
Medical procedures repaired the cosmetic issues and over time she gained more confidence, ultimately leading to a successful career requiring her to be more outgoing.
After marrying Jay and having four children in California, it was time for a move. They chose Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin is a wonderful place, but I would not have even known about it if I hadn’t reconnected with my biological sister,” said Mouille.
The Mouilles’ four children are Nicole, 27, who lives in New Mexico; Emily, 24, finishing school at UW-Whitewater; and Jacob, 17, and Ash, 14, both students in the Waunakee schools. Husband Jay is a CPA at Berndt in Fitchburg.
Soccer is a big part of their lives. Three of the kids excelled in the sport, and Mouille is a board member for Rush Wisconsin Soccer Club. Ash chose a different path, achieving a karate second-degree Black Belt.
Needless to say, Mouille has gone through her entire married life spelling and pronouncing her last name for others. “My maiden name was Johnson,” she laughed.
She has a unique job as Executive Director of United Way of Wisconsin (UWW). Much of her job involves bringing individual United Ways together to leverage their strength statewide.
“My role is to help people make connections so when we’re doing our work, we can do that more efficiently,” she said. “Our 40 United Ways work really well together. They each do a lot locally, and together we can do even more to help improve peoples’ lives statewide.”
United Way of Wisconsin accomplishes a lot with only five staff, who have offices with the United Way of Dane County.
An ongoing focus is on early childhood development. One project is a multi-state annual conference for United Ways. Another is managing Wisconsin’s 211 system to connect residents with thousands of non-profit organizations and government services through eight regional contact centers. A third initiative, ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), provides resources for community and government leaders to better identify and communicate the needs of the 38 percent of Wisconsin residents who struggle financially.
The biggest challenge Mouille faces is “there’s always more than can be done.”
“I want to do what I’m doing for as long as I can. I love coming to work every day. It is a hard job sometimes but it’s super rewarding. I want our communities to come together. There’s so much friction in the world today; I want to see that better.”