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The Coulee Region is ripe with options for disc golf — and another is in the works

When the Maple Grove Country Club closed in September 2013, Clint Rihn had an idea.

Rihn, who graduated from Onalaska High School that spring, had become increasingly interested in disc golf as a senior and believed the 18-hole ball golf course outside of West Salem could be an ideal spot for the sport of which he had grown fond.

It was only a thought at the time, and playing basketball at UW-La Crosse pulled Rihn away from disc golf. But, in 2017, he picked up where he left off before becoming a professional player, and his vision of a course at what is now Maple Grove Venues came full circle earlier this year.

Heather Suby, a 7 Rivers Disc Golf Club board member, had been in contact with Maple Grove Venues about creating a course, and in February, Rihn was asked if he would be willing to take the lead on designing it. Within a week, he was giving a presentation via Zoom.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s my first full design of a disc golf course, and that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Rihn said. “I’m pretty biased, but I think it’s going to be one of the best courses in the area.”

The project is still in the works, but it should add to what is already a vibrant scene in the Coulee Region for a sport on the rise.

The Professional Disc Golf Association’s membership increased by 33% in 2020 — with 26,632 new members joining — the organization’s largest year-to-year increase. Of course, not every disc golfer holds a PDGA membership — even though 58,992 members are considered amateurs — but a recent study done in partnership with UDisc, a popular scoring app, estimated that 50 million rounds were played in 2020, including about 36 million in the U.S.

Rihn has seen the sport’s growth firsthand, whether when going out to play a round or at Bluffside Birdie, a disc golf apparel business he and his wife, Brooke, run and coordinate events through.

“Every manufacturer is running out of discs right now. I’m trying to order baskets for the new course, and they’re all out of baskets to order,” Rihn said. “It’s just crazy, just in one year, how many more people are out and playing.

“It’s high school kids, it’s college kids, it’s families with little kids, people up to like late 50s, 60s. Everybody’s playing.”

Suby and Jason Mather — another 7 Rivers Disc Golf Club board member — have noticed that growth, too, and they’ve been encouraged as the sport gains traction with different demographics.

“I see people play disc golf in wheelchairs out here, which is fantastic,” Mather said. “That’s been great to see.”

“It’s cool when you see that,” Suby added. “And families. All the time, we see lots more kids playing with their families. Lots more women playing — from a woman’s perspective. We’re trying to grow that, obviously.”

The sport’s spread can be attributed to a number of factors.

For starters, it’s a relatively cheap sport to play; you can buy a disc for about $10, and 91% of courses are free to play, according to UDisc. It’s also easy to learn, fun to play in groups or own your own and promotes physical activity. It even offers a range of competitiveness — from the Disc Golf Pro Tour, which boasts the world’s top players, to the laid back style preferred by Jeremy Arney, an assistant professor at UW-La Crosse who created a sometimes five-, sometimes seven-, previously nine-hole ace course on his farm outside of Coon Valley.

And it has a way of pulling people back in for more, regardless of how seriously they take it.

“I had never played disc golf until I met Jeremy,” said Tim Dale, a professor at UW-L who frequently plays with Arney on his self-made course. “Jeremy says, ‘Try it out,’ and then the next day, I’m up at Play It Again Sports like, ‘Alright, I need some discs. This is going to happen.’”

“You always want to do better the next time, so you just keep coming back,” Rihn said. “And you never do (better) because the trees always win.”

Then, of course, there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which actually seemed to give the sport a boost since it’s played outdoors and allows people to be socially distant.

“I think that had a big factor on it,” Rihn said. “We’re seeing it in, obviously, parking lots, and whenever you’re going to the course, you’re just seeing so many more people. You can just see the growth everywhere.”

And it certainly helps that the area has a number of high quality courses to choose from.

Pettibone Park provides variety with 27 holes after its redesign — from tight fairways that require specific shots to open spaces that give players opportunities to experiment — and is a favorite of many. Nine-hole courses like the ones in Mormon Coulee Park in Shelby and Rowe Park in Onalaska can be quick-hitters if you’re short on time.

Veteran Hills in Viroqua and Big Brother at Justin Trails outside of Sparta have next-level distance if you’re looking for a challenge, while Winona, Minnesota, is ripe with options — including The Willows, which plays alongside Lake Winona and has multiple water hazards, and The Woods on the campus of St. Mary’s.

Jake Schumacher, a student at Winona State, said the way local courses blend with landscape makes the Coulee Region a great area for the sport.

“Having a lot of water around helps. I don’t know what it is, but something about just having water near it gets you a little bit on edge,” said Schumacher, whose favorite courses are The Willows and Pettibone. “Big Brother is in the bluffs, and there are some beautiful views on that.”

These courses are memorable and noteworthy enough that they even stop people who are passing through. Brett Schommer, a UW-L graduate who now lives in Waukesha, got in a quick round at Pettibone on Wednesday morning on his way back home from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“That’s the first time I’ve played (the new front nine) since it got first put in, (when) it was just baskets and trees. There weren’t fairways cleared out yet, so that was pretty fun,” he said. “I just love being out, and people are just having a good time.”

With a plethora of courses, there’s something for everyone in the area, and Rihn hopes the course planned for Maple Grove Venues embodies that.

Each hole at the course will have two tees and two potential basket positions — one long and one short of each — creating four different ways for the holes to be played. There is still work to be done, but Rihn is excited for the future of disc golf in the Coulee Region as it continues to grow across the country.

“Last year, they canceled a bunch of events. But this year, every weekend is an event, and they’re filling up. Some of the bigger events fill up in like five minutes,” he said. “We’re hoping that kind of translates to this area a little bit more, get some more established tournaments and some real draw.”

Photos: Big Rivers Conference Boys Golf at Hallie Golf Course 4-29-21

Child care advocates see hope in Biden's American Families Plan, state budget proposal

President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan, unveiled last week, would address a question that’s long bedeviled Wisconsin’s child care sector: Why does it cost parents so much yet pay its workers about as much as those working in fast food?

“Most of my teachers could go to Taco Bell and earn more,” said Sabrina Benish, director of the Kids Korner child care center in Reedsburg. “Their low wages — it’s what’s supporting child care.”

As part of Biden’s $1.8 trillion effort that would effectively move the United States more toward a European model of child and family support, child care workers in Wisconsin would make at least $15 an hour, or what amounts to about a 41% raise.

Constrained by parents’ ability to pay and low student-staff ratios mandated by the government to ensure child safety, Wisconsin’s child care industry has long struggled to meet the need for affordable, high-quality care while paying staff a living wage.

The upshot is the “market price for licensed child care is wildly high,” said Katherine Magnuson, who studies economically disadvantaged children and their families as a professor of social work at UW-Madison. “How many families can afford to spend between $8,000 and $10,000 a year to pay someone to watch their young child so that they can work outside the home?”

In Wisconsin, the situation is made worse by taxpayer-funded child care subsidies that are so low and so cumbersome to apply for that many qualifying families don’t bother to apply, according to Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.

Subsidies should cover about 75% of the market rate for care, Schmidt said, but the state’s program, known as Wisconsin Shares, covers about 30% to 35%.

Taking the brunt of all these competing fiscal pressures are the industry’s frontline workers, whose wages have long been on the margin of livable. A 2016 workforce study by the WECA found the the median starting and highest hourly wages for teachers in child care centers were $10 and $13, respectively, and assistant teachers made below $10. This despite education requirements they must meet if the centers they work for are to get decent marks under the state child care rating system, known as YoungStar.

Low pay and few benefits combined with higher-than-average job stress means high staff turnover at centers, which isn’t good for children. Tight child care center finances overall mean many centers struggle to stay open, especially in rural areas, and the ones that do can have long waiting lists for the children who need the most care. Tricia Peterson, owner of Future All Stars Academy child care in Juneau, said parents who call her looking for care for their infants are told she likely won’t have any openings until September 2022 or later.

Peterson said what would be of most help to her industry is a permanent increase in funding, and for funding to be assigned to specific needs, such as staff pay or subsidy levels.

Grants can allow her to give one-time bonuses to employees, she said, but not raises. And while the state Department of Children and Families knows the industry, money funneled through the department isn’t always spent on direct service.

“I don’t feel that the money ever gets to us,” Peterson said.Biden’s American Families Plan would devote $225 billion to child care, making it free for the poorest families and ensuring those earning 1.5 times the state median income pay no more than 7% of their income on care.

There’s also $200 billion for free, universal 3- and 4-year-old preschool; $25 billion for child food assistance; and billions more for a range of child-related tax credits, including the extension of one that would provide $250 to $300 in monthly, per-child payments to families that make less than $150,000 a year.

At the state level, one of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposals, Child Care Strong, would pump $70 million annually, into improving the fiscal stability of the state’s child care system.

Among its provisions are monthly payments to providers, “bonus payments for those caring for infants and toddlers, and per-child monthly stipends to providers with a YoungStar rating of 3 or higher,” according to the

nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum

. Half of all the money spent on the program would have to go toward staff salaries and benefits.Schmidt said the specifics of how the federal dollars will be spent are not entirely clear, but “they’re giving states a lot of latitude to decide.” Among people in her industry, there’s talk of possibly setting salary schedules for different regions of the state and ways to get more child care workers health insurance through health savings accounts and federal money for deductibles.

“I think there’s progress being made. I don’t think there’s as comprehensive progress as we need,” she said. She’d like to see child care worker pay tied to education level and the pay itself to be comparable to what K-12 teachers make.

Peterson said that without more money, child care is a pay-now-or-pay-more-later proposition, because many children who lack stable care grow up to have the kinds of problems that can land them in the criminal justice system.“We are part of the infrastructure of every state,” she said.

Meet Madison's top spellers of 2021

Good Works: Neighbors in Action serves aging residents and caregivers

Houston County is a wonderful place to live and work. It’s also a great place to grow older, in part because of the work of Neighbors in Action.

Neighbors in Action, a program of the La Crescent Area Healthy Community Partnership, began with a group of friends looking for ways to help their older neighbors by providing a ride to an appointment or helping with an outdoor chore. What started 15 years ago as a small volunteer program serving the La Crescent area, has grown into an organization that provides care to aging people and their caregivers throughout all of Houston County.

Neighbors in Action not only provides volunteer support, but also has paid staff called Care Partners. Care Partners provide an elevated level of service over what volunteers are able to do. One of the goals of the service is to provide respite, or extra help to families who may be overwhelmed because of the level of care needed by their loved one. Care Partners provide homemaking services such as light cleaning and laundry, help with meal planning and preparation, medication or bathing reminders, and especially that extra piece of mind to ensure the loved one is safe.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit all of us hard but probably none more than the older people who are at the highest risk of having severe complications if they contract the disease. Neighbors in Action rallied to keep clients safe while continuing to meet their essential needs.

Safety protocols were implemented and education was provided to volunteers, staff and clients. Still, their volunteer program was severely impacted and is just beginning to make a comeback. Volunteers are needed to provide transportation, companionship, and help with outdoor chores such as mowing lawns for people who are unable to do it on their own.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed another gap that seniors face; access to technology. While many of us utilized technology to stay connected to our family and friends, to buy groceries and services online, and to access medical care, a large majority Neighbors in Action clientele do not have access to internet connectivity or the devices to access it and therefore have experienced even more isolation than the general public.

In response, they started a pilot technology program (through Title III Cares Act funding from the Southeast MN Area Agency on Aging) and are working to distribute 20 iPads with internet connectivity to seniors in Houston County. The program will not only provide the device and internet connectivity, but also one-on-one coaching to make sure participants know how to use the device safely. Initially, many of the participants, like Judy were hesitant to accept the devices but now are learning the skills that many of us take for granted. Judy says, “This is so much fun! I can listen to music and FaceTime my family. What did I ever do without this little machine?”

While services have grown and changed over the years, Neighbors in Action continues to rely on help from the Great Rivers United Way and community donations to keep their doors open and their fees affordable. To learn more, check out or call 507-895-8123.

IN PHOTOS: Local community members wear face masks