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Cheryl Hancock, executive director of the Coulee Council on Addictions, beams Friday during a ground breaking ceremony for the Coulee Recovery Center (rendered in background) on Ferry Street. Construction on the $2.9 million building will start in November and is expected to be complete summer 2018.

Family & Children's Center helps woman bust cycle of abuse to prosper

ONALASKA — Cheryl Killilea tears up when she talks about her success in breaking the bonds of abuse and alcoholism she endured as a child, then faced again in a relationship of her own before reversing the pattern for herself and her children.

“The biggest thing is breaking the cycle. My mom had me when she was 18, and I was pregnant at 19,” she said.

“I was a mom at 20, not married, suffering physical and emotional abuse,” Killilea said of her life with the father of her 2-year-old daughter in Adams-Friendship, Wis.

She originally was from Chicago, where her alcoholic and abusive father divorced her mother and kicked them out, she said.

When she found her life mirroring that pattern, she said, “I felt the only way for my daughter and me was to move.”

Now, just over two decades later and nearly 100 miles west, the Onalaska woman has been married for 15 years, has another child, works as a personal fitness trainer at the R.W. Houser Family YMCA in Onalaska and has her own personal fitness training business.

Skyla, now 25, obtained a bachelor’s degree in community health from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is studying for her master’s degree in public health while also working full time as a community educator with the Coulee Council on Addictions.

“We’re changing the cycle,” she said, haltingly, as she choked back a tear. “That’s what I wanted — for my daughter to be free from the cycle of poverty and abuse.”

Killilea credits the Healthy Families Program of the Family and Children’s Center with much of her success in reversing her fortunes.

“Healthy Families helped me become a better mom and build a stronger family unit for my daughter to become the best parent I can be and a role model,” she said.

Killilea will tell her story as part of the FCC’s Evening in Monte Carlo fundraiser at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Cargill Room of The Waterfront Plaza at 328 S. Front St. in La Crosse.

The casino night, which the agency’s Guardian Angel volunteers host, typically raises about $30,000 in support of Healthy Families and Stepping Stones, the FCC’s child abuse prevention and children’s advocacy programs, said Jamie Korn, the agency’s development director.

“It’s a place where children who have been abused can tell their story without retribution,” Korn said. “They can move forward and heal.”


Killilea acknowledges that she wasn’t always so willing to tell her story, fearing judgment, but says she is doing so now because she believes it will be worth it if she helps even one person.

When she decided to bundle up 2-year-old Skyla, they headed to La Crosse so she could pursue studies at Western Technical College to become a paralegal, after discovering that the only two other places in Wisconsin where she could do so were Superior and Milwaukee.

“It’s way too cold in Superior, and Milwaukee isn’t the best place to raise a child,” she said.

Once here, Killilea said she experienced the frustration of isolation — without the support system of her mother and stepfather, not knowing anyone and without contacts. Further exacerbating her angst was the fact that she couldn’t find affordable housing and ended up in Hokah, Minn.

Nothing against Hokah, but she found that some people stared at her — a single mom in a small town.

Her interests also sometimes were different from those of other students, she said, adding, “Partying was not something I wanted to do. … I considered moving back many times.”

The main thing that kept her from throwing in the towel was that would have given credence to the predictions of several people in Adams-Friendship, including the man with whom she had had a relationship, that she would fail.

“I stayed in school and joined Healthy Families,” where a social worker became her advocate, as did a staffer at Western, she said.

“I was apprehensive at first (about joining Healthy Families). It was always difficult for me to ask for help, and I was afraid of the in-home visits, always having to have the house clean, meeting new people, afraid of failing,” she said.

Her apprehension abated with the realization that Healthy Families was intent on helping her succeed, set goals and use resources to make sure Skyla also was meeting goals.

“They wanted to make me be happy, to be able to take care of myself physically, financially, emotionally,” she said.

To make ends meet, Killilea worked two jobs — one in a work-study program at Western and the other, at Valley View Mall — and was able to arrange day care she could afford for Skyla.

“Somehow, I made it work, but it’s crazy to think of it now,” she said.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune  

Personal trainer Cheryl Killilea, left, works with client Caroline Moran. Killilea operates her own business, Changing Lives Fitness/Nutrition.

Killilea relocated to Onalaska, in more affordable housing, “even though low-income housing was a hard pill for me to swallow. I knew it would be temporary, and I knew someday that I would be able to give back.”

Unhappy with her paralegal studies, Killilea transferred to Viterbo University in La Crosse, where she obtained a marketing degree and shifted to marketing, which enabled her to land a job in corporate sales.

She met her future husband, Jim, when his cousin and her best friend, set them up on a blind date — even though she wasn’t husband shopping.

“I was 29, and happy being single and independent, with a daughter,” she said, recalling her surprise at experiencing love at nearly first sight with the graduate of Aquinas High School in La Crosse.

Jim, who works at Schneider Plumbing and Heating in Onalaska, adopted Skyla on his own birthday, when she was 11, describing her as “the best birthday present ever,” Cheryl said. They also have a child together, nearly 15-year-old Isaac.

Jolted when an economic downturn resulted in her being laid off from the sales job, Killilea turned to her bucket list, combining two items.

“I’ve always had a love of fitness … and I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she said.

The result is Changing Lanes Fitness/Nutrition in Onalaska, a home-visit personal training, nutrition and wellness-coaching enterprise she now operates out of their home, in addition to being a personal fitness coach at the Y.

Killilea hopes to sign a lease soon on a facility for Changing Lanes, for which she invokes the mantra of “Changing Lanes, Changing Lives.”

As far as what changed her own life, she puts Healthy Families at the top of her list.

“Without their support, it would have been pretty challenging,” she said. “I’m not sure I would be the parent I am without the skills.”

Science Says: Jack Frost nipping at your nose ever later

WASHINGTON — Winter is coming ... later. And it’s leaving ever earlier.

Across the United States, the year’s first freeze has been arriving further and further into the calendar, according to more than a century of measurements from weather stations nationwide.

Scientists say it is yet another sign of the changing climate, and that it has good and bad consequences for the nation. There could be more fruits and vegetables — and also more allergies and pests.

“I’m happy about it,” said Karen Duncan of Streator, Ill. Her flowers are in bloom because she’s had no frost this year yet, just as she had none last year at this time either. On the other hand, she said just last week it was too hot and buggy to go out — in late October, near Chicago.

The trend of ever later first freezes appears to have started around 1980, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data from 700 weather stations across the U.S. going back to 1895 compiled by Ken Kunkel, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

To look for nationwide trends, Kunkel compared the first freeze from each of the 700 stations to the station’s average for the 20th Century. Some parts of the country experience earlier or later freezes every year, but on average freezes are coming later.

The average first freeze over the last 10 years, from 2007 to 2016, is a week later than the average from 1971 to 1980, which is before Kunkel said the trend became noticeable.

This year, about 40 percent of the Lower 48 states have had a freeze as of Oct. 23, compared to 65 percent in a normal year, according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private service Weather Underground.

Duncan’s flowers should be dead by now. According to data from the weather station near her in Ottawa, Ill., the average first freeze for the 20th century was Oct. 15. The normal from 1981 to 2010 based on NOAA computer simulations was Oct. 19. Since 2010, the average first freeze is on Oct. 26. Last year, the first freeze in Ottawa came on Nov. 12.

Last year was “way off the charts” nationwide, Kunkel said. The average first freeze was two weeks later than the 20th century average, and the last frost of spring was nine days earlier than normal.

Overall the United States freeze season of 2016 was more than a month shorter than the freeze season of 1916. It was most extreme in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s freeze season was 61 days — two months — shorter than normal.

Global warming has helped push the first frosts later, Kunkel and other scientists said. Also at play, though, are natural short-term changes in air circulation patterns — but they too may be influenced by man-made climate change, they said.

This shrinking freeze season is what climate scientists have long predicted, said University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Jason Furtado.

A shorter freeze season means a longer growing season and less money spent on heat. But it also hurts some plants that require a certain amount of chill, such as Georgia peaches, said Theresa Crimmins, a University of Arizona ecologist. Crimmins is assistant director of the National Phenology Network. Phenology is the study of the seasons and how plants and animals adapt to timing changes.

Pests that attack trees and spread disease aren’t being killed off as early as they normally would be, Crimmins said.

In New England, many trees aren’t changing colors as vibrantly as they normally do or used to because some take cues for when to turn from temperature, said Boston University biology professor Richard Primack.

Clusters of late-emerging monarch butterflies are being found far further north than normal for this time of year, and are unlikely to survive their migration to Mexico.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said natural variability, especially an El Nino, made last year exceptional for an early freeze, but “it represents the kind of conditions that will be more routine in a decade or two” because of man-made climate change.

“The long-term consequences are really negative,” said Primack, because shorter winters and hotter temperatures are also expected to lead to rising seas that cause worse flooding during heavy storms.

In suburban Boston, Primack and his wife are still eating lettuce, tomatoes and green beans from their garden. And they are getting fresh figs off their backyard tree almost daily.

“These fig trees should be asleep,” Primack said.

Independence-Gilmanton's Cade Brenner is brought down by a host of Bangor defenders during Friday's WIAA Division 7 second round playoff game in Bangor.

$2.3 million settlement reached in death of former Marine at Tomah VA

MADISON — The federal government has reached a $2.3 million settlement with the family of a former Marine who died from a drug overdose in 2014 at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which would bring to a close the family’s wrongful death lawsuit against the government.

The settlement, set out in court papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Madison, would provide about $1.65 million up front to the widow and daughter of Jason Simcakoski, 35, of Stevens Point, who died on Aug. 30, 2014, at the Short Stay Mental Health Recovery Unit in the Tomah VA’s Community Living Center.

Some of that money, up to $586,000, would pay attorney fees and expenses.

The remaining $659,100 would be set up in annuities for Simcakoski’s widow, Heather Simcakoski, and their daughter, Anaya.

Because the settlement involves a minor, it still must be approved by U.S. District Judge James Peterson. A hearing on the settlement will be held Wednesday, when Peterson is expected to hear from a guardian ad litem appointed for Anaya Simcakoski about the reasonableness of the settlement, and how it is to be managed for the girl.

The family sued the government in August 2016, nearly a year after filing a claim against the VA that went unanswered. The lawsuit states that the VA had told the family that it intended to take full responsibility for Simcakoski’s death.

The settlement agreement states that the settlement “should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants or employees, and it is specifically denied that they are liable to the plaintiffs.”

Instead, the settlement is a compromise of disputed claims, the document states, done to avoid the expenses and risks of further litigation.

Simcakoski’s death led to the firing of the Tomah VA’s chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan. Earlier this month, the former head of the medical center, Mario DeSanctis, was allowed to resign, with a $163,000 settlement, after negotiations that followed his firing in 2015.

The Tomah VA came under fire in 2015 after an Inspector General’s report, released after Simcakoski’s death, found that opioid painkillers were being overprescribed by doctors at the medical center, earning it the nickname “Candy Land.”

Simcakoski, who was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2002, had been treated at VA facilities from 2006 to 2014 for a variety of conditions, and was admitted to the Tomah VA’s Acute Psychiatric Unit on Aug. 10, 2014, then transferred to the Short Stay unit.

He was prescribed drugs there to treat his pain, including Suboxone. The morning of Aug. 30, 2014, he was so sedated he could barely speak, his family said, and later that afternoon was found unresponsive. He died after life-saving attempts were made, although they were not started for about 10 minutes after he was found.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office said that Simcakoski died from mixed drug toxicity. A review by the VA Office of Inspector General found that doctors who prescribed opioid drugs to Simcakoski failed to talk with him about the risks of the treatment, and noted delays in the start of CPR to Simcakoski and the lack of medication at the Tomah VA to reverse drug overdoses.