RACINE — When Julie Sittig learned she’d been chosen — from among people throughout Wisconsin — to receive the 2017 Heart of Family/Friend Caregiving Award, she was more than surprised.
“It shocked me to even be nominated,” said Sittig, a Racine resident and the primary caregiver for her husband, Jim, who has been disabled for more than 10 years.
Others, though, were not surprised by the news because they know how devoted Sittig is to caring for Jim, who has multiple health issues.
“Julie is the epitome of what the Heart of Family/Friend award stands for,” said Dana Dodson, the nurse who serves as Jim’s home care supervisor.
“She is fabulous,” said Jim. “I can’t ask for anything more. She takes the time to take care of me, no matter what.”
The award — one of several given annually by the Wisconsin Long-Term Care Workforce Alliance — recognizes family and friends who have adapted their lives to provide unpaid and/or paid supports.
Julie certainly has done that, beginning on Jan. 1, 2006.
That’s when Jim collapsed in their home after not feeling well for several days. Julie, who found him on the floor of their living room, called 911; Jim was transported by ambulance to the local hospital, where doctors thought he might have a brain aneurysm.
He was then transported by Flight for Life to a Milwaukee-area hospital where it was discovered that he actually had subdural hematomas (bleeding between the brain cover and the brain). Tests also showed that Jim had multiple sclerosis; doctors told the couple they suspected he had the illness for about 20 years.
Since that day, Jim hasn’t been able to walk and Julie has been faced with making a lot of decisions about their life. Jim spent more than two months in the hospital, followed by a nursing home stay, before Julie could bring him home. When she did, she faced a whole new set of challenges.
“I knew nothing about how to take care of him,” said Julie, who had done factory work most of her adult life.
But that didn’t stop her from trying, and from learning more about how to do so. She and her son made handicapped-accessible changes to their home, and Julie enrolled in certified nursing assistant classes, so that she could learn how to transfer Jim in and out of his wheelchair.
“I was scared, because I never thought I’d be going back to school,” she said. “But I ended up making the honor roll. It was hard work, but I learned how to do things properly.”
Soon after, Julie became aware of Society’s Assets, a nonprofit agency serving Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties with the mission of ensuring the rights of all persons with disabilities to live and function as independently as possible. Jim connected with Society’s Assets in 2008 and began having in-home caregivers. After finishing her CNA training, Julie went on to take medical assistant classes while also caring for her husband.
During that time and since, the couple, now married for 35 years, have dealt with one challenge after another — from Jim having difficulty swallowing to him needing brain surgery after developing hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). Most recently, he had his left leg amputated above the knee because of circulation issues.
Julie’s training and perseverance in advocating for her husband has helped see them through such obstacles. By weaning him off some medications, for example, she was able to solve Jim’s choking issues so that he can eat whole foods again. When she heard something that “didn’t sound right” while listening to Jim’s lungs with her stethoscope, she alerted his doctor, who discovered the hydrocephalus.
In 2010, Julie was hired by Society’s Assets to be Jim’s paid family caregiver. The following year, she began working in Society’s Assets’ Racine office as the home care clerical coordinator — a job she says “I just love.”
“Thank God for Society’s Assets,” she said. “I wouldn’t have known what to do without them.”
Julie balances her job with maintaining their home and continuing as Jim’s primary caregiver. She’s up every day by 5 a.m. so that she can give Jim his shower, breakfast and meds before she goes to work.
“It’s been a long road,” Julie said. “But at least now, with exercises, the strength in his arms is real good.”
When asked what has kept her going down that road, Julie said, it is people like her co-workers, who keep her laughing, as well as her husband, who tells her: “We can’t go backward, so we might as well keep going forward.”
She also credits their dogs, Gizmo and Macho, with keeping both Jim’s and her spirits up.
“We take one day at a time,” she said. “We say ‘Let’s just get through today.’ ”
TOWN OF WATERFORD — For neighbors of a gravel pit who have voiced opposition to mining there, permit denial by the Waterford Town Board on Monday was a victory for local governance.
Town Supervisor Dale Gauerke's motion to deny the mining permit for 33319 Hill Valley Drive gave 15 reasons, including the long troubled history of the site, its previous owners and questions about the new owner and their application.
But it’s still unclear going forward what, if anything, will be done by the owner, town or county to restore the site to agricultural land, which was supposed to happen almost two decades ago.
The first permit for the site approved in 1998 was for a horse barn, with mining at the top of a hill to make the land level. The horse barn was never built. The owners, Greg and Dale Himebauch of Himebauch Farms LLP, continued mining and extended their extraction permits through 2001.
In 2001, Racine County approved a more ambitious mining plan submitted by the Himebauchs, but the town denied them the permit. In the town form of government, zoning matters must receive approval from both the town and county to go through.
The Himebauchs and Randy Johnson of Johnson Sand and Gravel of New Berlin filed a lawsuit asking for $50,000 in damages and a reversal.
The Racine County Circuit Court ruled in the town’s favor but the experience left a mark. At Monday’s Town Board meeting the board and Town Attorney Michael Dubis took precautions to spell out all 15 reasons for the denial to ensure the town is protected.
Another source of tension between the previous land owners, their neighbors, the town and the county is that the land has never been restored to agricultural land, as required by the permit.
The Racine County Public Works and Development Services Department formally notified Himebauch Farms that it was in violation of its conditional use permit on Nov. 20, 2015, and March 16, 2016.
On June 14, 2016, the county served Heimebauch Farms with a notice of zoning violations, stating that if the violations were not corrected within 15 days, each following day was a separate violation with a risk of citation.
Julie Anderson, Racine County’s director of public works and development services, said that after the notice, the Himebauchs did meet with her and her staff.
“Along the way they made a decision they were not going to complete the project,” said Anderson.
The site was never restored; it remains an open pit almost two decades after the initial extraction was approved.
This year, at a meeting on Jan. 18, the Racine County Economic Development and Land Use Planning Committee approved a conditional-use permit submitted by the site’s new owner, Garrett Foat, and Johnson Sand and Gravel of New Berlin.
Anderson said it’s not unusual for a pit that’s not in compliance to be sold.
“There are probably 10 pits that I can name off the top of my head that have been sold without being reclaimed,” said Anderson.
Foat purchased the land in December and submitted the extraction application shortly afterward. Johnson from Johnson Sand and Gravel told the county’s planning committee that the plan was for an approximate two-year extraction followed by restoration of the land.
Several neighbors to the site attended the county meeting to voice their opposition. County Supervisor Monte Osterman of Racine said that normally, the opposition would push him toward denying the permit but instead he wanted to give the new owner a chance.
“I think with a new operator or owner, I think it is the best opportunity for reclamation for the site,” he said.
The committee approved the project unanimously.
After the county’s hearing, Matt Weiss, one of the project’s opponents, found the real estate transfer return on the Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s website. The return showed that Foat had acquired the land through a quit claim deed for $10,000 but the Himebauchs had retained the mineral rights. Dan Egan, another opponent, told the Town of Waterford’s Planning Commission about the return at its meeting on Feb. 5.
The commission recommended the full board approve the application on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Roy Schmidt in opposition. Town Chairman Tom Hincz abstained.
On Jan 29, Foat filed an amended transfer return that stated Foat had acquired the land and the mineral rights for $200,000.
Egan brought up the mineral rights again at the full board meeting on Monday, calling the application in December “fraudulent.”
Foat told the board he hadn’t known the previous owners retained the mineral rights. When he learned about it, he had the rights transferred to him.
Another neighbor, Jeanne Lupo, said that 92 people had signed a petition in opposition to the project. One of their biggest concerns, especially for families, is safety. Marie Nycz and Samantha Barnett expressed concerns about trucks loaded with gravel driving on Maple Road, a rustic road with hills and a 45 mph speed limit.
Supervisor Teri Jendusa-Nicolai said she didn’t see how the latest application was any different from the previous ones that had been rejected by the Town Board. Town Supervisor Nick Draskovich agreed.
“We’ve been down this road,” said Draskovich. “I feel like it is a huge waste of time to myself, the other board members and to the people here.”
The town board’s denial passed unanimously, 4-0. Town Chairman Tom Hincz again abstained.
Anderson said that like the pit’s neighbors, the county also is tired of the situation not being resolved.
“I can tell you, as a staff, that we are equally frustrated,” said Anderson. “It’s not supposed to go on this long.”
She said that since the town’s decision was just made, it’ll take some time before the county can come up with a clear plan of action. She’s planning on have her staff meet with the town leadership in the near future and figure out what’s next.
“We want the site reclaimed,” she said. “We want the site brought into compliance.”
Editor's note: The original story had several errors. They have been corrected.
MADISON — As Assembly lawmakers unveiled a sweeping plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison and open new facilities around the state for juvenile offenders, Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said the county is preparing a proposal to present to the state in hopes of being selected as one of the counties that will house one of these facilities.
“We know we have to come up with a plan by the end of the year and we believe we will,” Delagrave said. “And from there we’ll work with our partners in the state (Legislature) to put that (plan) into fruition, so we can have what we feel is a state-of-the-art, high level facility for our kids.”
If legislation is passed by the state and Racine County is chosen, Delagrave said he would work with the County Board to use the current Racine County Juvenile Detention center, located in the Kornwolf county building on Taylor Avenue, as a place to expand mental health services. That plan is contingent on County Board approval.
“We feel like it’s a chance to have an integrated, state-of-the-art facility that not only provides a safe environment for kids but also we can integrate our services as well,” Delagrave said. “It would be an opportunity to elevate, at a serious level, some of the services we provide.”
With the eventual closing of Lincoln Hills, it is possible some of those housed there — including two Racine County juveniles — could be transferred to Racine County. However, Delagrave said it is “premature” to know if some will actually be transferred to Racine.
The detention center has a capacity of about 115 and currently houses about 50 juveniles from Racine and other counties.
“We certainly have kids from other counties who don’t have detention centers of their own,” Delagrave said. “We provide a high level service at a cost to those counties.”
While Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, held a press conference Tuesday releasing the plan, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he agreed with the plan’s goals but is worried changes are being implemented too quickly.
“That’s a big lift before the end of session,” Fitzgerald told the Associated Press.
But Vos and other lawmakers who helped draft the Assembly plan say they want to see it passed this session to quickly address serious abuse allegations and staff assaults at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, and may vote on it as early as next week.
The plan, written by Democrats and Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate, would close the state’s troubled youth prison by 2020 and put county governments in charge of new facilities around the state, which mirrors a trend nationwide to shutter large youth prisons in favor of smaller, regional facilities.
Under the proposal, the state Department of Corrections would still oversee the state’s most serious juvenile offenders — or youth who commit crimes such as armed robbery, sexual assault and homicide — in new facilities. Those who commit less-serious offenses would be under the supervision of their local county government in secure “residential care centers.”
The proposed changes come after years of allegations and lawsuits arguing the staff at the Irma facility have used pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement excessively and in a manner that has caused permanent harm to the inmates there. At the same time, staff at the prison have been repeatedly assaulted and allege an environment that is wholly unsafe.
Gov. Scott Walker has introduced his own plan to close the Lincoln Hills facility, open six smaller facilities around the state and convert the prison into a medium-security adult facility. Walker initially proposed for the plan to be inserted in the next two-year state budget starting in 2019, but shortened that timeline after calls from Democrats and some Republicans to close the prison quickly.
Though Walker called on lawmakers to quickly act on closing Lincoln Hills, his office did not say this week whether he was backing the Assembly plan.
The lawmakers’ plans come about six years after Walker’s office was first notified of unsafe conditions and potential abuse at the prison, and a number of unsuccessful proposals for changes to the juvenile corrections system from Democrats since 2015, when state and federal investigators raided the prison amid allegations of abuse.