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Lynnetta Kopp leaving RSVP role where she reveled in 'making a difference in people's lives'

Lynnetta Kopp may strike you as a tough young woman who wouldn’t be caught dead crying, but she can get teary-eyed talking about what she will miss most when she retires as executive director of the Coulee Region Retired Senior and Volunteer Program.

Kopp

“The hard part will be not to be here and see them blossom,” Kopp said of her staff and volunteers, choking up as tears welled in her eyes and she dashed across her office to grab a tissue before regaining her composure and answering.

“They will do well. They have taken ownership,” said Kopp, whose retirement will become effective Dec. 31 and who will be honored at a party from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, in The Waterfront banquet room.

Friends and acquaintances agree that the diminutive, 58-year-old spark plug harbors dual personas, but they insist that a heart of gold tips the scales heavily toward her soft side.

“She’s very emotional,” said Sarah Havens, vice president of the La Crosse-based RSVP’s board. “She likes to make people think she’s tough,” but she is a warm-hearted dynamo who has made the agency “a model for other RSVPs in the country.”

“She is so passionate about the work and the organization,” Havens said.

‘Committed to community’

Echoing those sentiments is Rosalie Hooper-Thomas, who was on the board that hired Kopp 14 years ago. “She is very much a head person, but she has such a compassionate heart. She’s very committed to the community,” Hooper-Thomas said.

That attitude is reflected in Kopp’s own appraisal of her RSVP role, of which she said in an interview, “I wake up each day knowing I’m in a vocation when I can make a difference in a person’s life.”

It also is apparent in other ways she has served, including as town of Shelby chair and supervisor, head of the La Crosse Area Planning Commission chairwoman, and board member of the La Crosse Area Development Corp. and La Crosse School Board, as well as positions with several other agencies and organizations, in addition to state and national posts.

Kopp, who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She and her husband, Steven, moved to La Crosse in 1987.

She worked in UW-L’s Career Services Office and Student Activities and Centers. Before taking the helm of RSVP, she was development director at the Coulee Region Humane Society in Onalaska, although she has no pets herself.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t care,” she said. “I have a caring heart for animals.”

Allergies prevented having a pet in the house, Kopp said, adding proudly that she is very fond of granddog Bascom, a rescue Australian blue heeler and terrier the Kopps’ son, Steven, owns.

“Lynnetta came in during a transition time for RSVP,” when the agency was emerging from the sponsorship of Bethany Corp., Hooper-Thomas said. “She brought her organizational skills.”

The “retired” in RSVP’s formal name often is misread as meaning that volunteers must be retired, while participants actually can be spring chickens as young as 55.

The annual RSVP fundraiser “Who Will Be Smarter than a 5th Grader,” which Kopp conceived and executed, is “phenomenal,” Hooper-Thomas said.

Dream becomes big-bucks effort

Kopp recalled that the idea came to her in a dream, and she presented it to a reluctant board. Board members were skeptical not because of the suggestion but rather, because it was January, and she wanted to host it in May.

The event, in which RSVP recruits community notables to partner with fifth-graders in a quiz bowl where the youngsters usually are the brains of the teams, was intended to replace the annual golf tournament fundraiser. The tourney, in competition with so many other organizations’ golf outings, used to raise about $4,000, Kopp said.

Kopp, staffers and volunteers pulled it off, and it has grown in popularity to the extent that it raised nearly $130,000 in April and aims to set another record in its 10th year, in 2018.

A Coulee Region RSVP venture that Havens cited as especially useful is the Blue Wrap Program, undertaken in cooperation with Gundersen Health System, where Havens is Community and Preventive Care Services director.

In that initiative, which Kopp and Gundersen sustainability coordinator Tom Thompson developed, RSVP volunteers craft blue used sterile wrap that hospitals typically send to a landfill into items such as aprons for pediatric oncology patients to use during craft projects, bedside bags, wheelchair/walker bags and care bags for breast cancer patients.

“It’s an unusual project that is a national model for hospitals and a model for RSVP,” Havens said.

Coulee Region RSVP has numbers to back up its value as a community institution, with 644 active volunteers between June 1, 2016, and this past June 1, among more than 1,200 registered. Together, they performed almost 72,200 hours of volunteer services, including being tax aides who helped 1,750 seniors with their returns, tutored 599 students, created 1,831 pounds of handcrafted items, delivered 1,432 meals, gave rides to 399 seniors who needed transportation and helped almost 100 seniors, disabled veterans or low-income individuals with minor home repairs.

Those services amount to as much as $1.65 million saved for individuals and organizations.

Volunteer patterns evolve

Volunteer patterns have changed since Koop took the reins, she said.

“When I first started, they were mostly long-term volunteers” who liked projects that would last for several months, such as tutoring a student for an hour a week for the entire school year, she said.

“Now what we’re seeing is a one-time, direct-impact commitment,” such as a fundraising event or other activity, although the volunteers typically step up for a variety of such activities over the course of a year,” Koop said.

“We still have a lot of long-term,” she said, as well as snowbirds who ask her to link them up with RSVP chapters where they spend the winter.

“That’s the joy of RSVP,” she said. “You join over 500,000 people (across the country), and you can do it anywhere.”

Volunteers testify to the program’s value in their own lives, such as two volunteers who lost spouses and told Kopp that RSVP helped them through their grief. A woman who couldn’t drive expressed thanks for the RSVP driver who gave her rides and “gave her some independence,” Kopp said.

“It’s something simple where a volunteer made a difference,” she said.

As for herself, Kopp said she eventually will become a volunteer, although she’s going to take a break to determine what she wants to do and will continue to serve on a variety of organizational boards.

One activity she has settled on is “being a prayer partner with the FSPAs,” she said of the extensive prayer network of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. “It will be something for me that also will help others.”

She and husband Steven will take some motorcycle road trips, on which she perches on the back seat of their BMW K1600. This past summer, they logged 4,000 miles on a circular trip through many states.

Koop also plans to enter more marathons, a vice she embraced after son Steven persuaded her to join her in Chicago a few years ago. She finished in the top 3 percent of her age group, although she hasn’t fared as well in more recent outings.

Asked whether marathon running might be easier if she were taller, she raised herself to her full height of just barely 5 feet and replied with smiling, mock indignation.

“My legs are long for my height because I’m short from here,” she said, motioning from her waist to her neck.

Her stature is tall as RSVP director, said Havens, who said, “She will be a loss to RSVP, but she has left a great foundation.”

Hooper-Thomas, observed, “Lynnetta has a great sense of humor, she has become a longtime friend, and I appreciate what she’s done for seniors.”


Across Wisconsin, recent rises in hate, bias incidents spark concern

The reports came in at an alarming pace. A student at a middle school near Milwaukee drew a stick figure with a swastika on its face. The image held a gun pointed at another stick figure, which had the name of the student’s Jewish teacher on it.

A voicemail left on the phone of a leader of a local Jewish organization said, “Pack up your bags with all of your other kikes and get the (expletive) out of our country.”

ALEXANDRA HALL PHOTO 

Kahn

These are just two of dozens of similar incidents compiled since the beginning of 2017 by Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She has been collecting information about anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin for the past seven years.

The barrage of anti-Semitism in Wisconsin has stunned Kahn.

“I have never had so many reports (about anti-Semitism) as I have had in the last couple months,” she said. “There’s more fear in our community now than there was even a year ago.”

Experts who study hate and bias-related acts say the incidents are part of a nationwide trend that has created tension in communities, schools and workplaces.

Michaelis

“The Trump presidency has emboldened a lot of these groups,” said Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist from Milwaukee who now works to heal racial divisions through his group, Serve 2 Unite. “Having an administration that is blatantly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim is basically enacting policies that are in line with white supremacy ideology.”

Experts say while white supremacist individuals or groups may have divergent interests, many of them share a common agenda: They see the increasing diversity in the United States as a threat to their race. And the roots of their fear stretch years before the election of Donald Trump.

“(Former President Barack) Obama in a way was a physical representation of our changing demographics,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center. “The rise in hate groups started in 2000, and that’s the year when the census said white people will become a minority in the 2040s.”

And Trump supporters, such as National Review Online contributing editor Deroy Murdock, contend that tying Trump to white supremacy is no more than a cynical political ploy.

“The ‘Donald Trump = David Duke’ narrative is a bright, shining, left-wing lie,” Murdock wrote in a September column, referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader. “It’s designed to make Trump radioactive, sandbag his agenda, and terrify black voters so they’ll stampede the polls and save the Democrats’ bacon in November 2018. The Left deserves universal scorn for deploying such political plutonium.”

In recent months, the nation has been roiled by racially charged protests and speeches.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based nonprofit that tracks hate crimes and hate groups nationwide, said it has seen a rise in the number of hate groups operating in the country for the second consecutive year, up from 892 in 2015 to 917 in 2016. Nine of them operate in Wisconsin.

The center also attributes this spurt of hate group growth to the rise of Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric during the presidential campaign.

COBURN DUKEHART, WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM 

Olson

“He played into racist instincts,” Beirich said. “They (white supremacist groups) view Trump as a good political force for their beliefs.”

Alix Olson, a retired Madison police detective who founded the organization Seeking Tolerance and Justice Over Hate, said that Trump’s election has emboldened hate groups “who felt before that they didn’t have a voice.”

“This administration has given carte blanche to white supremacy,” Olson said. “Everything is starting to become undone to the detriment of people who have way less power than white people do.”

Neo-Nazis, anti-gay groups in state

Among the nine identified hate groups in Wisconsin are the White Boy Society, a “biker brotherhood” that aims to protect the heritage of white people; Pilgrims Covenant Church, which preaches against gays, lesbians and transgender people; Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization whose inclusion on the list is, the center acknowledges, controversial; and White Devil Social Club, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says fits the definition of a neo-Nazi group, which professes hate for Jews and love for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Like other groups reached for this report, the Nation of Islam rejected the “hate” label. It pointed to a column published by a New York-based African-American news website that described Nation of Islam as a “religious group with an impeccable track record of good works and service, particularly to the black community and other oppressed and marginalized communities throughout the country.”

Another organization, the National Socialist Movement, seeks to “defend our future from the genocide being pushed to wipe out the white race with race mixing,” according to Will Docks, the leader of the movement’s Wisconsin branch, which unsuccessfully sought to organize a rally in Eau Claire in September.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the National Socialist Movement is “one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States.”

The overall number of hate groups in Wisconsin and their members and activities are hard to track because some of these organizations operate without centralized leadership, fall apart quickly and function entirely online.

Wisconsin has not seen any high-level protests like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August, in which one protester was run down and killed by a white supremacist. But the state is not immune to hate and bias events, ranging from merely disturbing to deadly.

A recent example: A white elderly patient in Ozaukee County, who was suffering from a life-threatening infection, asked a female doctor whom he had not previously met, “What’s that thing on your head?” After she informed him it’s called a hijab and she wore it because she is a Muslim, he ordered her out of the examining room.

The doctor, who asked that her name not be used, was astounded. She has been practicing in hospitals in the Milwaukee area for the past eight years. She said the incident in February was the first time a patient had refused treatment because of her religion.

Kaminski

“Will I say that I have never had the looks, the angry and dislike looks? Of course I did,” the doctor said. “But none that went as far as, ‘Get out of the room. I don’t want you to care for me.’”

In March, a crime that police believe was racially motivated occurred in Junction City, a small community in central Wisconsin’s Portage County. Henry Kaminski, 80, fired a gun in the direction of a Hmong neighbor who was working in her garden because he thought the Hmong were taking over Junction City, according to news reports.

One of Wisconsin’s most infamous hate crimes occurred in 2012. On a quiet Sunday morning, a white supremacist walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, shot six people dead and wounded four others.

He thought he was killing Muslims, according to police.

No reliable data

There are no reliable data on the number or rate of hate crimes in the United States, according to the investigative news nonprofit ProPublica. The organization has collected several dozen self-reports of alleged incidents of hate and bias in Wisconsin — most of them unconfirmed — since November 2016 when it began soliciting tips as part of its Documenting Hate project. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is among more than 100 news outlets and other groups participating in the project.

FBI figures show just eight anti-Jewish hate crimes in Wisconsin in 2016, while the same year the Milwaukee Jewish federation collected 50 anti-Semitism reports, some of which do not rise to the level of criminal behavior. These reports include harassment or threats, written and verbal expressions or vandalism, such as the swastikas that were spray-painted on a memorial near the Gates of Heaven synagogue in Madison’s James Madison Park in September.

The vandalism came hours before the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“It was obviously a targeted attack meant to intimidate a community,” Olson said, “and knowing that swastikas do to the Jewish community what Confederate flags do to the African-American community.”

At UW-Madison, 11 percent of 8,652 students surveyed in 2016 in the first campuswide climate survey said they have been subjected to hostility, harassment or intimidating behavior. Students of color, women, transgender people, those with disabilities, gays and lesbians were more likely to experience such incidents, according to the climate survey.

Most of the 87 reports of bias or hate at UW-Madison in the last six months of 2016 were about racial insults, so-called microaggressions, derogatory language, signs on bulletin boards or graffiti found on campus buildings.

University of Wisconsin-Madison 

Helmkamp

“There’s a lot pain out there right now, and it’s a challenging time for our society as a whole,” said Kevin Helmkamp, UW-Madison’s assistant vice provost and associate dean of students.

One of the communities feeling that pain is Native American students. In March 2016, a group of students mocked tribal leaders at the Dejope Residence Hall during a healing ceremony held for sexual assault victims. And this year, on Oct. 9, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, graffiti that read “Columbus Rules 1492” was written in red paint on a sacred fire circle at the same hall.

Native American students say the desecration reminds them of centuries of discrimination in a place that is supposed to welcome them.

RILEY VETTERKIND, WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM 

Ludwig

“Every time we go there now, it’s going to be in the back of our minds that that happened there,” said Collin Ludwig, co-president of Wunk Sheek, an indigenous student group. “It’s just disappointing and it upsets us a lot that we are still being treated this way after 500 years.”

RILEY VETTERKIND, WISCONSIN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM 

Skenandore

Mariah Skenandore, the other co-president, said “my heart isn’t safe on this campus.”

“It’s terrifying for me to walk down the street and not know who even committed a crime like that or who is capable of doing that or who agrees with the person that did that or doesn’t see anything wrong with that,” she said. “I could be walking side by side with these people.”


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Alcohol increases cancer risk, says report led by UW doctor

Heavy drinking greatly increases the risk of some cancers, and even moderate drinking boosts the risk of breast and colon cancer, says a report by a national cancer doctor group whose lead author is a UW Health oncologist.

At least three drinks daily or eight weekly for women, and at least four daily or 15 weekly for men, increases the risk of head, neck and throat cancers five-fold, the American Society of Clinical Oncology said. Heavy drinking also more than doubles the chance of getting liver and voice box cancer.

Moderate drinking — up to one drink a day for women and two for men — carries a 23 percent increased risk of breast cancer and 17 percent increased risk of colon cancer, the group said.

Overall, about 3.5 percent of the 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the U.S. are alcohol-related, the doctors said.

“If you drink, try to keep it under the (moderate) amount,” said Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor of medicine at UW-Madison and lead author of the report, published this week in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. “If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you drink more, even cutting back, but not quitting, will reduce your risk.”

The oncology society called attention to the long-established link between alcohol and cancer after a survey last month said 70 percent of Americans didn’t know drinking was a risk factor for cancer.

The group also encouraged policy changes, such as increasing alcohol taxes, enhancing enforcement of laws banning sales to minors and eliminating “pink washing” — companies using pink ribbons or the color pink, associated with breast cancer awareness, to boost alcohol sales.

“It’s sort of like selling cigarettes to raise awareness for lung cancer,” LoConte said.

Wisconsin has the highest rate among states for adult binge drinking, one type of heavy drinking, so policy changes could have a big impact, she said.

Alcohol is thought to increase the risk of head, neck, throat and voice box cancers because those tissues come into direct contact with alcohol when people drink, the oncology society said.

Ethanol, a primary component of alcohol, and acetaldehyde, made when the body breaks down alcohol, can damage the DNA of healthy cells. Alcohol may also increase the amount of estrogen in the blood, which could explain the link to breast cancer.

Some studies have suggested that alcohol, notably red wine, can lower the risk of heart disease. But further analysis said the non-drinkers studied often had other health problems, making the drinkers only appear to be healthier, the oncology society said.

Among all cancers, head and neck cancers are somewhat common, with about 50,000 cases and 10,000 deaths expected this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Esophagus, or throat, cancer is more unusual but considerably deadly, with about 17,000 cases and 16,000 deaths this year.

About 255,000 people will be diagnosed this year with breast cancer, and 41,000 will die, and about 96,000 will get colon cancer, with about 50,000 deaths.

If people exercise, eat well and don’t drink excessively, they shouldn’t worry too much, said LoConte, who said she has about two drinks a month.

“Life as an oncologist is all about teaching people about moderation,” she said.

“Life as an oncologist is all about teaching people about moderation.” Dr. Noelle LoConte, associate professor of medicine at UW-Madison


Walker's refusal to visit prison fuels campaign criticism

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to visit Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons, which are under investigation and the target of multiple lawsuits, will be an issue in his re-election, with Democratic challengers saying it epitomizes the Republican’s failed leadership.

Walker has never visited the Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake prisons in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau. The move allows him to distance himself from troubles at the prison, while defending his decision not to go by saying he has faith in Department of Corrections leaders to improve conditions.

A federal court ordered the department in July to reduce the use of certain disciplinary methods at the prisons, including solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles. Prison workers have said that conditions have worsened since that order was issued. One violent clash with inmates in October sent five workers to the hospital and a teacher was knocked out by a juvenile two weeks earlier.

A federal probe into alleged criminal mistreatment of the inmates is in its third year.

Walker’s Corrections Department has instituted a series of changes at the prisons. Those include replacing the superintendent, increasing staff training, installing more surveillance cameras, equipping guards with body cameras, providing incentives to encourage good behavior among the youth and increasing programming for inmates.

Walker told The Associated Press recently that it’s his faith in those leading the department that makes him comfortable with never having seen firsthand what’s happening at Lincoln Hills. He also said he won’t go there before his second term ends in 14 months.

Walker said Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher has insisted the prisons are safe for workers and inmates. He said Litscher has been given “the tools and the authority to make changes in (the juvenile justice) system, whether there or anywhere else where they’re appropriate, to ensure the safety and security of the staff as well as offenders.”

“That’s the difference,” Walker said. “Democrats focus on things that, I guess, are for show as opposed to results.”

Democrats and some Lincoln Hills staff who have called on Walker to visit view his decision to stay away as a fundamental flaw in his ability to effectively govern the state.

Lincoln Hills epitomizes Walker’s failed leadership, said Tony Evers, the state superintendent of schools.

“We have a serious crisis on our hands and instead of addressing it, Walker is going out of his way to avoid taking responsibility,” Evers said. “A real leader wouldn’t leave this problem to his underlings to solve.”

Democratic state Rep. Dana Wachs promised that if elected he would visit personally with the workers there.

Andy Gronik, a Milwaukee businessman and Democratic candidate, said “the best solutions come from walking the factory floor and speaking to the people who deal with the problems every day.”

“We need a leader who isn’t afraid to drop into tough situations and find innovative solutions for both the kids at the facility and the correctional officers entrusted with their care,” Gronik said.

One Lincoln Hills teacher who was punched and knocked out by an inmate, Pandora Lobacz, has requested a meeting with Walker but he’s refused.

“Governor Walker and Secretary Litscher are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all staff at Lincoln Hills, and welcome any insight that she may have,” John D. Tripoli, an attorney for the Corrections Department, wrote to Lobacz’s brother Aaron Rollins in an email Wednesday, encouraging her to communicate with the head of juvenile corrections.