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.
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.”