The Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center has made some tweaks to its proposal to put in a transitional residency program in the former home of Dave and Barb Erickson in advance of two city committees discussing the request next week.
The La Crosse Plan Commission and the Judiciary and Administration Committee will meet Monday and Tuesday, respectively, to discuss whether to grant the Tomah VA Medical Center a conditional-use permit to allow a community living arrangement at 3120 Farnam St., donated by the Ericksons to the VA with the idea that the seven-bedroom, handicap-accessible home would serve local veterans.
The facility, which requires the permit to move forward because it is within 2,500 feet of a similar facility, faced some backlash in October from neighbors concerned about security and was delayed two months to give people a chance to address those concerns.
Tomah VA director Victoria Brahm understands how neighbors can be wary, given stories of bad apples in the news and portrayals of some veterans in the media.
“It can be hard to understand if you haven’t worked with veterans and heard their stories as people. Veterans are people, too, and people have issues, veterans or non-veterans,” Brahm said. “These are not scary, scary individuals.”
The people in the work therapy residence will be screened thoroughly to ensure they’re ready for the final step toward independent living, and anyone with a violent history or a history of sexual violence will remain in treatment on the Tomah VAMC campus. Only stable veterans will be admitted to the La Crosse facility.
“These are treated individuals who have participated in the program willingly and with a mission to succeed. These are the ones who are screened by professionals here at the VA, and they will make it,” Brahm said, adding that the average stay nationwide at the VA’s 41 similar facilities is six to 12 months.
The facility’s leaders are trying to address neighbors’ concerns, including staffing, screening and parking.
“We’re trying to give and take, but only to the point where it doesn’t affect the integrity of the program,” Brahm said.
The planning department on Friday was intending to recommend that the commission refer the request for an additional 30 days, allowing more time for neighbors to learn about the project, according to senior planner Tim Acklin.
Acklin received the VAMC’s revisions late Thursday and didn’t have time to review them before posting the agenda for Monday’s meeting.
“Due to the time it was submitted, we haven’t quite had enough time to revise our staff report and look at it right now, but we do intend to incorporate it into our presentation,” Acklin said.
The VA revised parts of the program, limiting the residents to eight from the previously proposed 10, and increasing staffing. In addition to the full-time care manager who oversees the program, Brahm is proposing adding security of some kind, ensuring there is 24/7 on-site supervision, in addition to the two resident managers.
Residents will be required to be employed, keep all scheduled treatment appointments and take their medications. Overnight guests, firearms, alcohol and drugs will be forbidden.
“That stuff is highly monitored and supervised. There’s someone there all the time so these things do not occur,” Brahm said.
The veterans also will be required to participate in community-based activities and volunteer, which Brahm said was part of their therapy prior to the creation of this program. The idea is to get them involved in the community, not only through their employment but also through their social lives.
“They need to be fully comfortable being a part of that community,” Brahm said.
The VA has also agreed to make a payment in lieu of taxes to the city to cover the costs of municipal services to the treatment facility.
“I think it’s a win-win, if we can just get people to take a leap and try it,” Brahm said.
She added that the VA has run compensated work therapy transitional residence programs to assist veterans since 1994, and 20 of them are successfully integrated into local communities, enriching both the community and the veterans the VA serves.
“Whatever the outcome, we appreciate having the opportunity, and we would be remiss not to try,” Brahm said.
Almost two decades ago, Becky Felten called her mother, Bonnie, from the store with a query.
“I found this Santa suit. If I buy it, will you make Dad dress up?”
Flimsy and ill-fitting, with a cheap white wig to boot, the costume was far from exquisite, but the effect was pure magic. Becky’s children were elated, and Dan Felten found his true calling. He’s been Santa ever since.
Dan, 75, and Bonnie, 74, whose maiden name is, fittingly, Claus, have been spreading holiday magic in downtown La Crosse for the past four years, returning to their workshop at 500 Main Street this afternoon from 2 to 7 p.m. to chat with wide-eyed children and pose for priceless photos. The couple have 18 years of experience under their brass-buckled belts, having started their career as the Clauses at a Las Vegas mall before moving on to Texas, ultimately settling in La Crosse, where Dan retains his Santa persona year round.
Bonnie has been by his side since the beginning, urged by Dan to join in the merriment after a visit to a school.
“He told me, ‘You really have to see these faces,’” Bonnie recalled. “And he was right.”
With a full, authentic beard and a real belly full of jelly — “She fattened me up,” Dan said, pointing to Bonnie — the couple became instant favorites with mall-goers, poached by a Dallas Mall after the pair unwittingly won a best Santa in the city contest in Vegas.
It wasn’t uncommon for the two to see more than 14,000 children at the mall each season, spending 12 hour days in crushed red velvet and jingle bell sashes. Disinterested in the sit-them-down, take-the-picture, send-them-off mentality, Dan and Bonnie find their Downtown La Crosse workshop far more conducive to their conversational and compassionate style.
Seated on a sofa in their whimsical workshop, constructed by son Matthew and complete with twinkling tree, fireplace, toys and “Nice” list, the Feltens spend at least five minutes with each child, listening to their requests and accommodating the wary ones by having Santa hang back a bit while they get comfortable, if necessary having him pop up discreetly in the background for a quick pic.
Believing every child should have a picture with Santa, the Feltens don’t charge for their appearances at Downtown Mainstreet but gratefully accept donations. Bonnie sews their costumes by hand, and granddaughter Carly lends her time as an elf, snapping family photos upon request.
“It’s nice to not have all the equipment and the photo sales and just be with the child and play with them and give them an experience,” Dan said.
The pair provide at times life-changing experiences for every age, from 1-hour-olds (Dan donned his suit for one of their newborn grandchildren) to 90-year-olds in nursing homes. It’s the babies and the elderly who like to test his beard for authenticity.
“Ninety percent of the time it gets yanked, it’s an older lady,” Dan said.
A skilled ventriloquist, Bonnie gives a voice to Olive, their dog puppet mascot, and keeps pocket angels, tiny silver medallions, in her pocket for the kids in need of a little cheer. Not every little one comes in asking for dolls and Legos — some share heartbreaking stories, from abuse to tragedy, and the Feltens do their best to offer advice and comfort.
“We tell them to put the coin in their pocket, and every time they touch it remember, ‘Santa and I love you, and we’re saying a prayer for you,’” Bonnie said.
“For many, Santa is seen as a safe figure you can confide in,” said Dan, who says the couple also encourage children with concerns to reach out to a teacher or trusted adult, and have Child Protective Services contacted if necessary. “You can tell the kids who rarely get hugged and they cling to you. We tell them ‘Santa and Mrs. Claus always love you.’ Oh my gosh, the hugs you get.”
The Feltens are true miracle workers, changing the lives of two young boys forever after one paid them a visit at a Texas mall. Dan and Bonnie always remind their visitors to be kind to others and befriend the kids who are being bullied or left out.
“One boy, he was 8, said ‘that’s me’ with such sadness,” Dan recalled. Bonnie approached the mother, who was insistent her son was fine. But just two weeks later, the Feltens received a letter: The mom had talked to the school, and they discovered her son’s bully was being abused at home. The next year, the mom returned to let them know all was well: The boys were both safe and had become good friends.
Every year brings new stories, some funny, like the boy who came with his wish list on a spreadsheet, complete with prices, and others heartwarming. They have visited Alzheimer’s disease patients who perk up at the sight of Santa — “It’s an old memory that stays with folks” — Dan said, and more often than not, a child’s only request is a happy holiday for their loved ones.
“I’m impressed with how many kids have said, ‘I just want my mom to have the best Christmas ever,’” Dan said. “They really understand the spirit of the holiday.”
There’s snow, rain and sleet in the forecast today for southwestern Wisconsin, with a possible 3 to 6 inches of accumulation, and also the chance of an extra ingredient: lightning.
Residents living south of I-90 could witness a phenomenon known as thundersnow, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Although a rare occurrence, with the right system, it’s possible to have snow and lighting and thunder at the same time, said Dave Schmidt, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in La Crosse. “We could see some isolated occurrences of thunder going into Saturday afternoon.”
Thunderstorms are rare in the winter, but when air loaded with moisture rapidly rises, it not only cools very quickly. It also rubs against other particles to create a charge, which creates an imbalance, Schmidt said. “Nature doesn’t like an imbalance, so it discharges, and that’s where you get the lightning and thunder.”
The central United States, intermountain west, and Great Lakes region are the “preferred regions” for thundersnow events, according to research from the University of Missouri.
Motorists driving during a thundersnow should slow down, Schmidt said. Thundersnows temporarily produce a localized, heavier downburst of sleet or snow.
The stormy mix is expected to move in after 9 a.m. Saturday in La Crosse, starting with rain, and last into Sunday.
La Crosse’s Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have taken on many missions in their 169-year history. Learn about the order’s history of perpetual adoration, prayer, education and health care, along with the new path toward a “Revolution of Goodness,” with reporter Mike Tighe in a special section Sunday’s Tribune.