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Local entrepreneurs enter the mask market

Two Chippewa Valley entrepreneurs have shifted gears from operating a trash and recycling service to manufacturing surgical face masks.

Andrew Holland and Joe Craven started ProVyro Waste Services in 2010, and they obtained a contract to operate the Chippewa Falls recycling program in 2015. However, they sold the business to Boxx Sanitation in July 2019, and by October, they were completely separated from the company. Craven began working in Colorado, while Holland was traveling back and forth to Arizona for a job.

However, when COVID-19 took off in late February, Holland said they saw a need for more face masks that were made in the United States.

“We all saw the shortages for health care workers,” Holland said. “We started doing some research, and after calling around and seeing if it was viable, we formed our company.”

This was around the time when there were reports of price-gouging as masks became hard to find. Seeing that shortage of supply in the U.S., Holland said the duo saw an opportunity to launch a new venture and help a lot of people.

Along with a new partner, Samantha Holzman, the entrepreneurs formed Wisconsin Medical Supplies. They acquired mask-making equipment from China, and set up shop in the former 3M building at 2020 Prairie Lane in Eau Claire.

“That (machine) took 2½ to three months for it to arrive,” Holland said. “We got it in May, and started producing.”

They began making 250,000 masks a week, with a goal of ramping up to 500,000 a week. Including the three owners, they employ eight workers.

They are producing three-ply surgical face masks, designed to have a 99.3% bacterial filtration efficiency.

“Quality control is huge for us,” he said. “The feedback we’re getting is our masks are much more comfortable,” adding that they are looser around the ears.

Ideally, a vaccine against COVID-19 will be available sooner than later, and masks won’t be universally required or desired, Holland said. But even if the pandemic subsides, hospitals and some businesses and individuals will still opt to purchase them.

“Who knows how long the surgical face masks will be needed in the United States. We believe this is a long-term model,” Holland said. “There is zero question this (pandemic) will have a long-term impact on our behavior and responses.”

The company launched their website, wisconsinmedicalsupplies.com, last month, where consumers can buy face masks directly. The masks also are sold at One Source Imaging in Eau Claire.

“We wanted to be ready, and have an inventory,” Holland said. “We didn’t want people to need orders and us to not be able to fulfill them.”

Holland said they’ve had multiple orders from out-of-state firms, but about 90% of sales are from within Wisconsin, with local manufacturers buying the most.

Holland said the state’s face mask requirement while indoors in public spaces — which began Saturday — is long overdue. He encourages people to reach out to them if they are struggling to get masks.

“If someone needs PPE, we’ll find a way for them to have it,” Holland said. “We shouldn’t have anyone having to use a shirt or a paper towel.”


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Blugold works to build cultural competence, understanding of white privilege

When Alex Hintz came to UW-Eau Claire as a freshman, he wasn’t all that surprised to discover that he didn’t know a lot about people of other races and ethnicities.

After all, he had grown up in a small, upper-middle-class, predominately white Milwaukee suburb, with little opportunity to interact with people who were different from himself.

What did surprise him during his first months of college was the realization that for most of his life he had never really thought about race, hadn’t noticed the lack of diversity in his community, nor acknowledged how much he benefits from being white.

“I had no experience at all with people of color until I came to Eau Claire,” says Hintz, a native of East Troy who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in December with degrees in education and history. “When I got here, I was stunned when I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about Hmong people. I was blown away that I had gone all the way through high school not knowing an entire population exists even though I grew up 30 miles from Milwaukee, which has a large Hmong population.”

That realization was a turning point for him, says Hintz, who spent the next five years seeking out opportunities on and off campus to educate himself about people of color’s histories, experiences and challenges, as well as to better understand his white privilege.

His goal, he says, is to grow his knowledge and understanding so he can be a stronger ally for people of color and to ensure he can best meet the needs of his future students.

“Alex has worked tirelessly to understand his privilege and become a more culturally competent educator,” says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, director of Blugold Beginnings and executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire. “I wish all white male educators had the kind of college experience he had to really work on cultural competence before going into the classroom.”

Blugold Beginnings

Hintz still was in his first weeks of college when he saw a notice about Blugold Beginnings hiring mentors to work with youth in Eau Claire-area schools.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I emailed Jodi about a mentoring job without really knowing anything about Blugold Beginnings,” Hintz says. “She hired me, and next thing I knew I was a mentor working with kids at North High School.

“It’s been an amazing experience. I started out as a mentor and then got more and more involved, including serving in different leadership roles.”

Blugold Beginnings, a program that connects UW-Eau Claire student mentors with youth attending Eau Claire-area middle and high schools, helps prepare and inspire youth, especially underrepresented, low-income or first-generation students, to pursue higher education.

During his years on campus, Hintz held various positions within the program, working with youth at Eau Claire high schools and middle schools. He was a mentor, site coordinator, intern and camp counselor. After graduating in December, he continued to serve the program as an AmeriCorps member.

While he came to UW-Eau Claire knowing he wanted a career in education, it was through Blugold Beginnings that Hintz discovered his passion for teaching history at the middle and high school levels.

Civil Rights Pilgrimage

As a sophomore, Hintz he went on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a UW-Eau Claire immersion program that takes students to numerous sites and cities in the South that are significant to the civil rights movement.

The pilgrimage was a life-changing — though in some ways, unsettling — experience, Hintz says.

“It was my first experience of being one of just a few white people in a group that was primarily people of color,” Hintz says. “I was surprised to find myself sometimes feeling uncomfortable, and I felt a need to try to understand why I was feeling uncomfortable.

“I also recognized that while I had uncomfortable moments during the trip, people of color are constantly in situations every day where they feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.”

By the end of the pilgrimage, he was more determined than ever to learn more about history that goes beyond what was shared in the textbooks he grew up studying.

“During that trip, things really clicked for me,” Hintz says. “I knew as a future educator I had to step it up. How was I going to teach kids if I didn’t understand who they are and what they’ve experienced? I knew I needed to try to understand and learn more.

“The Civil Rights Pilgrimage really shaped my understanding of what it means to be an educator and how I want to teach.”

Once he was back on campus, Hintz sought out people, programs and classes that would help him better understand social and racial histories and issues. He filled his schedule with classes in history, political science and other disciplines that focus on the history and experiences of people of color.

“I knew I had a lot to learn,” Hintz says. “So, I took classes in African American history, Black American politics and courses that helped me learn about the Hmong and their experiences.”

High-impact practices

In addition to rethinking his classes, Hintz also looked for more real-world opportunities to grow his knowledge and understanding about diverse populations, especially their histories and how those events are shaping people’s experiences today.

“The history I learned in school whitewashes so much and limits the voices we hear,” Hintz says. “Even now, I need to keep educating myself using different sources so I will be ready to teach in a way that will give my students a more complete story.”

Current events are reinforcing his belief that it’s time to rethink how history is taught, Hintz says.

“For example, if students are to understand Black Lives Matter and the recent protests, they have to understand Black history,” Hintz says. “They need to know that the police were first used to catch slaves, so today’s police forces were built out of that structure.

“I know that because I did the research, not because I was taught it in school. There is so much that always has been there but is not talked about in schools. As teachers, we really need to dig in and help students understand how events from a long time ago shape what things look like today.”

Fortunately, he says, at UW-Eau Claire he found many opportunities to grow his understanding of how history shapes today’s world.

For example, one immersion, “Cultural Preservation through Tourism in Hawaii,” connected him with native Hawaiians who talked about their history and their efforts to preserve their culture, as well as how tourists impact local communities.

“It was an amazing experience because we talked with people who shared a very different account of Hawaiian history than what I ever learned,” Hintz says. “While I was always taught that Hawaii became our 50th state, I never knew that we essentially stole it.”

Hintz also participated in an immersion that took him into a Milwaukee charter school with a large Hmong population. In addition, he helped lead a Blugold Beginnings program that brought area high school students to the Twin Cities to explore Hmong archives, restaurants and museums.

Moving on

With his AmeriCorps service coming to an end, Hintz is looking for a teaching position in New Hampshire, where his wife will attend law school.

Any school will be fortunate to have him, Thesing-Ritter says.

Hintz’s willingness to embrace so many opportunities and his commitment to working to understand his own white privilege will help to make him an exceptional teacher and a strong ally for people of color, she says.

“He is such a beautiful human,” Thesing-Ritter says of Hintz. “We need more educators like him who are really willing to do the hard work to look at their own identity and the issues facing all of their students.”


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Museum exhibit honors suffrage movement, passage of 19th amendment

A new traveling exhibit from the Wisconsin Historical Society honors and celebrates the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement, culminating with the 19th amendment that gives women the right to vote.

The display, titled “We Stand on their Shoulders,” will open Tuesday at the Rassbach Museum in Menomonie.

Melissa Kneeland, the museum’s executive director, noted that the amendment was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920. She said it was important to have the exhibit come to the region.

“It’s important because, although 100 years seems like a long time ago, it’s living memory for some people,” Kneeland said. “These rights aren’t necessarily going to be around if we aren’t vigilant.”

Kneeland said the collection is set up in a gallery space used for traveling exhibits. It features multiple panels describing the suffrage movement, historical buttons, along with news clippings from the Dunn County News.

“The history of suffrage is complicated, and doesn’t include everyone,” Kneeland said. “They show the fight for suffrage and the politics on both sides.”

Kneeland noted that even though the amendment passed in 1920, a variety of maneuvers from literacy tests to poll taxes to immigration status restrictions kept women from voting for decades after the amendment was ratified. She enjoys talking to youths about this era and seeing their reactions.

“It’s a wonderful thing that young people today can’t comprehend there was a time they couldn’t vote,” she said.

Reservations are required to take the tour. Tours start on the hour, and people will have 45 minutes to go through the exhibit.

Kneeland said she’s pleased the exhibit was able to move forward, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The gallery space will be cleaned after each session.

“I’m so excited and appreciative the Wisconsin Historical Society puts together these traveling exhibits,” she said.


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EC man gets prison for third felony meth conviction

An Eau Claire man will spend four years in prison for his third felony methamphetamine-related conviction within six years.

Aaron J. Blomberg, 34, 3113 Venus Ave., pleaded guilty recently in Eau Claire County Court to a felony count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

A felony count of possession of narcotic drugs and a misdemeanor count of possession of drug paraphernalia were dismissed but considered at his sentencing hearing last week.

Judge Michael Schumacher ordered Blomberg to spend six years on extended supervision following his release from prison.

As conditions of supervision, Blomberg cannot drink alcohol, enter taverns or have contact with known drug dealers or users.

Blomberg must also undergo an alcohol and drug assessment, and any recommended programming or treatment.

According to the criminal complaint:

An Eau Claire police officer was sent just before midnight on Sept. 25 to the Kwik Trip on Black Avenue on a report of a car that drove over the curb and nearly struck the gas pumps.

The officer arrived to find the car in the east end of the parking lot, away from the gas pumps.

The vehicle was running and Blomberg was in the front passenger seat.

Blomberg’s eyes were closed as if he was sleeping, but his arms and legs were moving around in the passenger seat.

Blomberg, who had a backpack on his lap, was awakened by the officer. He was dazed and disoriented.

Blomberg could not get out of the car and had to be pulled out.

He was handcuffed and placed in a squad car, where he immediately fell back asleep.

Officers searched the vehicle and found a large number of clean gem packs, which are typically used to store illegal drugs.

Nearly 40 grams of methamphetamine were found in Blomberg’s backpack. Officers also found an additional mixture of methamphetamine and heroin.

Empty gem packs and three clean glass pipes, commonly used to smoke methamphetamine, were found in the backpack.

Blomberg was taken to the Eau Claire County Jail, where a used hypodermic needle was found in his right front pocket. The needle contained a small amount of brown liquid.

Blomberg was convicted of felony counts of methamphetamine delivery in June 2014 and September 2016, both in Eau Claire County.