Participants in the annual La Crosse County Health Summit eschewed discussion of the leading causes of death Friday, focusing instead on the elements that infuse life into the Coulee Region.

“The causes of life are more complex than the causes of death,” keynote speaker Matthew Bersagel-Braley told the nearly 150 health care representatives, county health workers, social services personnel attending the summit at Western Technical College.

“What we need is here,” said Bersagel-Braley, an associate professor and chairman of the masters in Servant Leadership Program at Viterbo University in La Crosse.

Seeking “to bend the arc of the summit to create an epidemic of good health,” Bersagel-Braley said communities extend beyond the traditional ideas of health into assets found in areas where people live, work and play.

Bersagel-Braley outlined key points of the “Leading Causes of Life,” a trademarked program and book by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, with the subtitle of “Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life.”

Speakers at the summit, which the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium’s Population Health Committee sponsors each spring, detailed initiatives that illustrate the five fundamentals, which are:

Intergenerativity, an awareness of your relationships with those who have preceded you and those who will follow. It includes concern for those beyond your family.

Connection, seeking life through the complexity of social relationships and connections to create communities.

Coherence, referring to methods people use to make sense of life in an often nonsensical world.

Agency, which involves choosing to move toward life, even if you feel disconnected.

Hope, which does not mean optimism or merely wishful thinking but rather, imagining a different, healthier future and acting to bring that future into being.

Catalytic instead of paralytic

Previous paradigms of building community often were “paralytic rather than catalytic,” Bersagel-Braley said.

One program that breaks through the paralysis is Project Proven at WTC, program coordinator Tonya Van Tol said as she detailed the effort to help people emerging from the criminal justice system join the workforce.

“We are able to give people connections and realize they are not criminals,” Van Tol said. “We are really, really in the business of hope. Hope is huge, and so is that connection.”

Van Tol presented a video of Jordan Holter’s transformation from a drug addict into a winner of a Wisconsin Job Honor award in December to salute his overcoming his demons to become gainfully employed after participating in Project Proven.

The La Crosse man traced his descent into addiction to methamphetamine, being jailed several times with a long juvenile delinquency record and 15 convictions over 11 years and becoming so distanced from his family that he skipped going to its Christmas gathering one year out of fear his parents would have him arrested.

Worry about his fate routinely propelled his mother to check with police, court records hospitals and friends to determine where he was, he said.

“Project Proven saved my life,” Holter said. “My mom slept better when she saw me on the jail roster, because she knew I would be safe for the night.”

On his first day at Western, he said, “Tonya handed me my welding boots and helmet, and I went from jail to college in 24 hours.”

‘I want to be light for other addicts’

Now a respected apprentice maintenance technician at Great Lakes Cheese in La Crosse, “I want to be a light for other addicts,” Holter said in the video.

Another cause of life has emerged from the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, which was launched last year and was able to house 16 veterans during a 100-day deadline it set to find them homes by Christmas, said collaborative Chairwoman Kim Cable and Mary Jacobson, assistant executive director of Catholic Charities who chaired the collaborative’s design committee.

The group intends to begin its next step — tackling chronic homelessness — on April 20.

It has identified between 45 and 50 people classified as chronically homeless, which includes people who have been solidly homeless for a year or those who have been homelessness on four different occasions during the past three years that total a year of homelessness.

“Housing first is the key to success,” Jacobson said, noting that people who have a place to stay then are able to focus on other needs and be connected with services to get back on their feet.

Providing homes has far-reaching implications, Cable said, adding that a 2012 study found that a community’s costs for one homeless person can cost nearly $64,000 a year, including additional services needed, ranging from the potential for jail, relief, food stamps, emergency room visits and mental health services, to name a few.

By comparison, getting a homeless person into housing costs only about $17,000, she said.

Perhaps the most touching stories of the day — judging by many participants’ glistening eyes and trickling tears — came from La Crosse Police Neighborhood Resource Officers Tyler Rampach and Dan Ulrich, who told of their life-changing encounters with youths and their families in the Washburn Neighborhood.

The main difference between regular patrol duty and Neighborhood Resource shifts is that an officer on regular patrol often is able to see only the surface of an incident, such as a domestic violence case, Pond said.

In contrast, working from the Neighborhood Resource officer perspective — often with youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater La Crosse Amie L. Mathy Center at Viterbo — they build relationships with some of the same children they had seen on domestic calls.

“It’s sad to see kids and you want to reach out,” but can’t in volatile situations where they often are afraid of police, Rampach said.

Focus on families, prevent problems

As neighborhood officers, “we can focus on the family as long as it takes ... ,” to discover underlying issues, he said. “We try to prevent things before them happen.”

He told of one girl he befriended, to the extent that he sometimes helps her with her homework.

Once, as Rampach was leaving Mathy Center after an event where he hadn’t noticed the girl, all of a sudden she ran up to him and demanded, “Where do you think you’re going without giving me a hug?”

Ulrich recalled feeling intimidated the first time he walked into the club because, “when you’re a police officer and you walk in, everything stops.”

“But once it gets past three minutes, they say, you’re an officer, you care, you’re cool,” said Ulrich, whom the youths call Officer Dan.

He told of the time a young boy was having a bad day at the center and was pouting, with his head down and refusing to look up.

When a social worker encouraged him to lighten up, the boy continued to stare at the floor, insisting, “I don’t want to talk to anybody,” adding after a pause, “Say hi to Officer Dan.”

After the officers wrapped up their presentation, the task of summing up the day fell to keynote speaker Bersagel-Braley, who was so visibly touched that he choked back tears.

He recalled his earlier days, when he used to drive children around and take many of them home.

“If I’d have known police like Dan and Tyler,” he said, his voice trailing off as he fought to regain his composure before he just sighed and gave up.