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Everyday Heroes

These volunteers go beyond the expected to inspire others

Dec. 17, 2008
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“Everyday heroes” surround us, individuals who donate their time, talent, experience and hard work to benefit those who aren’t so fortunate. One thing they all have in common is the ability to make positive personal connections with others, connections that turn into larger changes in our world.

Our everyday heroes include a multi-ethnic coalition of high-school students who are tackling injustice; veterans who have coped with posttraumatic stress disorder and vow that new combat veterans should never have to experience that despair alone; breast cancer survivors who are reaching out to those who have just received a cancer diagnosis; and individuals with mental illness who are providing support and advice for those who are struggling and feeling isolated.

Students United for Immigrant Rights and Students United in the Struggle

Youth activists are changing their world

For the kids at William Horlick High School in Racine, lessons aren’t learned learned solely in the classroom. classroom.

The students involved in two groups—Students United for Immigrant Rights (SUFRIR) and and Students United in the Struggle (SUITS)—are learning about their world world at the the same time they’re they’re changing it.

SUFRIR and SUITS members have successfully campaigned for funding referendums referendums in the the Racine Unifi ed School District, advocated in Madison for in-state tuition for immigrant students, rallied at May 1 immigrant marches, and helped to get out the vote on Nov. 4.

Teacher Al Levie, who helped to organize both groups, said that that even though many of the students are too young to vote, becoming politically active benefi ts them personally and in school.

“They’re all good kids, but they tend to get overlooked,” Levie said. “But getting involved in political activities gives them a sense of empowerment in connection with the community, with their parents and with themselves that they didn’t have before. It’s very good for them.”

For big events and causes, the groups can quickly mobilize hundreds of socially and politically aware students. While SUFRIR is primarily a Latino-based organization and SUITS is focused on civil rights issues close to the hearts of African-American students, Levie said that their members represent a cross-section of the diverse student body at Horlick. Other student organizations are banding together with them and they’ve inspired similar groups to form at other high schools in Racine and Milwaukee. They have also become affiliates of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, which has offices in Milwaukee and Racine.

Senior Jessica White, president of SUITS, said that she had once been intimidated by the tasks and responsibilities bestowed on student activists, but is now seen as a leader at school. “It shaped me into a better person,” said White, who is applying to colleges. “It made me a better leader, too, to help the younger kids out in school. When I see someone having a problem, I’m like ‘We can talk this out. You don’t have to go out and fi ght and do crazy stuff that’s going to get you expelled from school.’”

Suzette Moore, a teacher adviser, said that it’s “refreshing” to work with the students in SUFRIR and SUITS, who are working to have Martin Luther King Day recognized by the Racine Unified School District. “They’re dedicated to social issues that relate to them inside and outside of school,” Moore said. “We read so many negative things about public schools, but the good things and the good kids don’t make the local news.”

Levie said that it’s never too early to get involved in political issues that affect the students and their families. “They’re not really the future,” Levie said. “They’re today. They have a right to act on the world today. They shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 18 or 21. Just because they’re minors, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a say in how the world develops. They’re creating their world and it’s a very powerful thing.”

Coming Home From War

The Dryhootch offers support from fellow veterans

When veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam returned home, they sought out their fellow vets at local taverns, much-loved institutions that are still going strong in Milwaukee.

But those beer-soaked bars may not be the best environment for those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because an estimated 80% of veterans with PTSD are also abusing drugs or alcohol.

That insight led Vietnam veteran Bob Curry to launch Dryhootch, a coffeehouse-type place for veterans to gather, share stories and support each other as they cope with PTSD. That idea dovetailed with one of the goals presented last year by a local task force on PTSD, which recommended establishing a peer community center on the grounds of the Zablocki Medical Center.

Curry said that he, like many Vietnam vets, understands how devastating PTSD can be to one’s health, well-being, relationships and livelihood. He urged returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families to ask for help when they need it, because early treatment is key to reducing the effects of PTSD.

Curry said a “dryhootch,” or a veterans’ peer community center, would be an easy way for newly returned veterans to find a safe community with those who have been there and learned how to cope with PTSD. “We don’t want the new generation to have to go through this,” Curry said.

Curry, who co-founded the nonprofit Dryhootch organization with fellow veteran John Kusko, said the group will formally launch in early 2009, but it already has the support of the state of Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, the mental health staff at the Clement J. Zablocki Medical Center, Milwaukee’s congressional delegation and a wide swath of the local veterans’ community.

The Dryhootch volunteers are selling Stone Creek coffee beans to raise funds to restore the old Post Office in the Soldiers Home Historic District on the Milwaukee VA grounds, where the Dryhootch will be located. They’re also asking for donated labor and materials from those who can offer it. For more information about the Dryhootch, go to www.dryhootch.org.

Being There

Breast cancer survivors share their experiences

A cancer diagnosis is never easy to hear, especially when you’re diagnosed with a rare, fast-growing cancer.

Diane Becker, a Pewaukee hairdresser, knows what it’s like, after hearing that she would have to battle inflammatory breast cancer, and that’s why she reaches out to women who have been diagnosed with it. “When my family looked online for information about inflammatory breast cancer, it sounded like a death sentence,” she said.

Fortunately, human connections can give new life to hope. And those connections are often provided by men and women like Diane Becker, who have had similar cancer experiences, similar struggles and similar successes. “Because I am a survivor and I have survived eight years, then people can say, ‘There’s hope,’” Becker said.

Becker is one of many mentors trained by After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD), a nonprofi t volunteer-based network that links women and men who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer with survivors who know what it’s like to cope with it. ABCD was founded in 1999 by former news anchor Melodie Wilson, and the Milwaukeebased organization also operates the Breast Cancer Helpline (918-9222 or 800-977-4121), an easily accessible resource for those who have questions about breast cancer.

Becker has fond memories of her own mentor, Erica, who had been through the multiple treatments and surgeries that go into combating inflammatory breast cancer. The two women bonded over natural products, reconstructive surgery scars and just being there for each other. Erica later passed away after her cancer re-emerged, but Becker said that her influence was helpful when she was in treatment. “I always knew that she was there if I had a question,” Becker said.

Becker has since mentored about a dozen women, some of whom shared her rare diagnosis. Although the treatments have evolved over the years, Becker wants these women to know that they aren’t alone during their often intense and grueling medical procedures. “Sometimes the easiest way to find an answer is talking to someone who’s been through it,” Becker said. Ginny Finn, executive director of ABCD, said that Becker could quit mentoring at any time, but she has remained committed to helping other women with breast cancer.

“Diane is a shining example of what all of the mentors are about, which is first and foremost the commitment to another human being,” Finn said. “Diane in particular has been doing this for a long time. She could choose to not have this as part of her life, but she never forgets what it feels like.” ABCD’s one-to-one support services are free and available to anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Volunteers are always welcome; Hispanic and African-American mentors are especially needed. For more information, call 918-9222 or go to www.abcdmentor.org.

Every Phone Call Is an Opportunity

Warmline creates a community for those with mental illnesses

For those who have never heard of a “warmline,” Lyn Malofsky said the easiest way to describe it is by what it is not. “It is not a hotline,” Malofsky said. “It’s not for crisis, it’s not for emergency situations. It’s for people who simply want someone to talk to.”

Malofsky, the executive director of Milwaukee’sWarmline Inc., explained that the non-crisis support line is used by people with a mental illness who need need someone to talk to, to, in both good times times and bad. The phone line—777- 4729—is staffed from 7 to 11 p.m. every day but Thursday. All calls are anonymous and confidential.

“Traditional services services close close at five, so the evening, from five until the time you go to bed, can be a very isolating time,” Malofsky said. The 8-year-old Warmline has answered about 43,000 calls—almost 10,000 just last year—which range from inquiries about social social services or housing to talking through a particularly thorny problem and role-playing to to discover a solution. Malofsky said a simple phone call to a sympathetic listener can help prevent a bout of anxiety from spiraling into a fullblown panic attack that may require a trip to the the emergency room. She said that the Warmline is often often a first rst step for those who are coming to terms with their their mental illness and seeking out help privately. Every phone call call is an opportunity for someone to find appropriate care for his or her individual needs.

“The window when someone is willing to receive help is so small that we have to seize that moment,” Malofsky said. The volunteers answering the phone phone calls are especially especially in tune with the callers, since they they also have been been diagnosed with with a mental illness. Malofsky said it’s one service that allows individuals to see their mental illness as a strength, not a liability. She She said the Warmline’s motto—“Call us, we’ve been there”—highlights that philosophy.

“What’s unique about about this program is that we inspire so much hope in people,” Malofsky said. “We have been been there. Every single person working at the Warmline has been there.”

She said that while stable funding continues to be a challenge, the Warmline has evolved into something much more than a volunteer-staffed support line. “We thought we were creating a phone line, but we were creating a community,” Malofsky said. “It’s a very strong community that’s been going on for eight years.”

The Warmline is is also seeking seeking volunteers  who will undergo training to answer phone calls. To find out more, call the Warmline’s office at 257-5775.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.



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