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Fresh Start program lives up to its name for at-risk young adults
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FALL CREEK — After a series of run-ins with the law, Ginger Liddell was in a self-described “bad place.”

Christian Billings was struggling in school and falling further and further behind.

For both teens, their lives took a turn for the better when they got connected with the Western Dairyland Fresh Start program.

The program seeks to rebuild lives as it teaches at-risk young adults to build houses.

The latest fruit of the program’s labor — a sparkling new three-bedroom ranch house in Fall Creek built by about 10 young adults from age 17 to 24 — was on display Tuesday during an open house hosted by Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council.

The Fresh Start program has been helping participants get just that while building about one house per year for more than two decades. The homes are then sold to low-income families, adding to the limited stock of affordable housing in the Chippewa Valley.

“The need for affordable housing in the area is undeniable,” said Shayne Gerberding, Fresh Start manager. “Being able to contribute to that is one of the coolest parts of this program. It’s awesome to see when people get the keys to their first house.”

The primary focus, however, is on building the employment skills and self-esteem of young adults with past problems ranging from a lack of education or poor work history to incarceration or drug dependency. That can mean matching participants with work experiences in fields that match their interests, she said.

“A big piece of what’s missing is that a lot of them don’t have a lot of support, people showing them what could be their future,” Gerberding said. “We encourage them and show them they can do it, that it is possible.”

Luke Steffen, the program’s official construction manager and unofficial counselor, agreed, saying the personal growth he sees in some participants is remarkable.

Still, he acknowledged the challenge of building houses with a team of young adults with no construction experience.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Steffen said with a laugh. “As long as we’re in the positive at the end of each day, it’s a good day.”

A key, he noted, is that they often take about a year to build the houses, compared with the three months it might take for a regular construction crew.

When Fresh Start participants complete a house, the feeling of accomplishment is unmistakable.

“You can see the excitement in their eyes when each task is finished and then, ultimately, when the whole house is done,” Steffen said. “They can stand back and say, ‘I did that.’ That’s huge for them.”

Fresh Start participants, most of whom come from Eau Claire, Altoona and Chippewa Falls, are expected to complete a 900-hour term with the program through AmeriCorps, which provides a daily living allowance and an educational stipend upon completion. Some of the students complete two terms.

Liddell, 17, of Chippewa Falls, said she had accumulated a criminal record before the program helped get her life back on track to attend Chippewa Valley Technical College.

“It has definitely been life-changing,” she said.

With a desire to help other people, she aspires to a career of addiction counseling.

“I graduated early (from high school), and I wouldn’t have done it without Fresh Start,” Liddell said. “Now I’m headed to a great life I never thought I would have.”

Liddell, who helped paint walls and install cabinets and trim in the house on Jackson Avenue in Fall Creek, plans to continue with the program through next May. She also has enjoyed many volunteer opportunities with community nonprofits through Fresh Start.

Likewise, Billings, 18, of Eau Claire, said Fresh Start staff helped him get caught up in school, obtain a driver’s license and gain some valuable work experience, both through building the house and participating in a job shadow program with Eau Claire city departments. He is thankful to the teacher who noticed his struggles and referred him to the program, and now he expects to do another 900-hour term in the program and graduate from high school next spring.

As for the construction aspect of the program, Billings said it was remarkable to see the house rise from the ground up as participants pounded nails, put up drywall, laid flooring and applied finishing touches. His favorite task? Roofing.

“I enjoyed putting on shingles,” he said.

In the end, the project gave him a feeling of accomplishment and a new sense of confidence in his ability to be successful.

“It’s hands-on work, and that’s the type I’m looking for,” Billings said.

Overall, the Fresh Start program has tapped into a variety of funding sources to build 26 houses and rehab a few others since it launched in 1998. In addition to Fall Creek, participants have built houses in Altoona, Mondovi, Augusta, Alma Center, Hixton, Black River Falls and Merrillan.

‘Incredibly resilient’: Hope, optimism as students return to school in Eau Claire
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EAU CLAIRE — Though today marks the second year that Eau Claire students will head back to school during a pandemic, some teachers and families say they’re hopeful that this school year will remain more consistent than the last.

“We are really excited to have students back at school and, more importantly, at school five days a week,” said Kim Koller, the district’s executive director of administration, in an email.

Although Eau Claire elementary students don’t formally begin classes today — instead they’ll visit their schools, meet their new teachers and tour classrooms — it’s the first day of class for the rest of the district’s K-12 students.

“I’m just excited to see friends again and learn in class,” said Ed McGee of Eau Claire, an incoming junior at Memorial High School. “I’m excited to see people again and to learn in person … (last year) was difficult.”

McGee’s mother, Lucie McGee, has another son attending DeLong Middle School this fall. She echoed her son’s optimism: “I’m excited that they’re going back to five days a week, because I think my kids, and most people’s kids, need that five days of instruction. I’m hopeful that people will follow the rules and stay as safe as possible … We’re trying not to worry and trying to move forward.”

Koller said staff are thrilled to have students back in the classroom for the whole week.

“I know students have been incredibly resilient throughout the pandemic and (they’ve) faced challenges in school that most adults have not,” she said.

Eau Claire students are back to attending classes five days per week this fall, instead of the hybrid approach the school district took last year. K-12 students looking for all-virtual classes were offered participation in the Eau Claire Virtual School this year.

“It’s odd to think that we are starting our third year when COVID will end up affecting things,” said Mark Goings, a Robbins Elementary School teacher and president of the Eau Claire Association of Educators union. “But we’re still really excited to be able to offer five days a week in person. It’s so nice to have students in the classrooms.”

The district announced in July that after-school activities and athletics would return to regular schedules and seasons.

“Definitely, the high school calendar is full,” said Lucie McGee. “The hope is that we’re able to find a safe way to do all those things, so that while catching up on the academics, students also have their other opportunities for music, sports, extracurriculars. If we can try to do more safely, we’ll have happier kids.”

Regardless of vaccination status, Eau Claire students and teachers must wear masks when they’re inside school buildings, the district decided this summer. It’s the only large school district in the Chippewa Valley to implement a mask requirement. Currently, masks are optional in most classroom settings in Menomonie, Altoona and Chippewa Falls.

Mask requirements in schools are backed by the country and state’s largest public health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. About 43% of Eau Claire County 12- to 15-year-olds and 49% of 16- and 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to state data. There is no COVID-19 vaccine currently approved in the U.S. for children younger than 12.

Goings said he and other teachers hope the mask requirement will prevent widespread outbreaks in schools, which he said are “hard on everybody. It’s hard on our students and parents, and on everyone, if we have those unanticipated (outbreaks).”

Koller said she hopes community transmission rates decrease and that the district can stop its mask requirement.

“Whether families are for or against masking, I believe families and the District share a common goal of keeping as many students as possible in school five days per week,” she said. “Because masking minimizes close contact quarantines, it helps us achieve that goal.”

Eau Claire County is still rated by the state as having a “very high” COVID-19 activity level. Between May and July, an average of two to five people were testing positive every day; as of Tuesday, the daily average of new infections had risen to 39, according to county data. (On Sept. 1 of last year, the county was averaging 12 new cases per day, which spiked to a much higher surge in October and November.)

State and county health departments plan to help the district with contact tracing, the district announced in July. It plans to keep offering hand sanitizer inside buildings, and custodians will clean all buildings after each school day. Special cleanings will happen if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a school.

One thing the public can do to help prevent outbreaks is to get vaccinated, Goings said: “The sooner we can control that community spread, the more likely it is that our students will be able to experience an uninterrupted school year.”

He added that students will likely need extra emotional support this year.

“Being an elementary teacher it’s amazing to think, for our first graders for example, that they haven’t experienced what a normal, full school year looks like,” he said. “It’ll take time … academics will definitely come, but we need to make sure we meet those emotional needs first and foremost.”

Wisconsin Legislature allowed to intervene in redistricting

MADISON (AP) — A three-judge panel of federal judges has granted the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature’s request to intervene in a redistricting lawsuit brought by Democrats.

A request by the Legislature to intervene in a second, similar redistricting case brought by voting advocacy groups is pending. The court said its preference would be to consolidate the two cases and asked those involved to show by Sept. 7 why that should not be done.

On Monday, Wisconsin’s five Republican congressmen also asked to intervene in the case brought by Democrats. The congressmen, just as the Legislature did, want the case to be dismissed. The motion was filed by U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald, Mike Gallagher, Glenn Grothman, Bryan Steil and Tom Tiffany.

A third redistricting lawsuit, brought by conservatives, is pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has not yet said whether it will take it or require it to first go through lower state courts.

The federal court on Friday granted the Legislature’s request to intervene in the lawsuit. It set a Sept. 13 deadline to respond to the Legislature’s request to dismiss the case.

In the order granting the Legislature’s request, the judges said federal courts have routinely allowed state lawmakers and legislatures to intervene in redistricting cases.

All three lawsuits say it’s unlikely the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will agree on new maps, so the courts should be prepared to draw them instead.

“If (Democrats’) prediction is correct, and Wisconsin fails to enact a law establishing new districts before the election, it’s hard to see how this court could proceed without input from the Legislature,” judges James Peterson, Amy St. Eve and Edmond Chang wrote.

The three lawsuits were all filed before the GOP-controlled Legislature has produced a map or taken any votes. The Legislature is charged with the task of redrawing political boundary lines for members of the state Assembly and Senate, as well as Congress, every 10 years.