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Bob Lepsch is jazzed about plans for a facility in La Crosse where he and his wife, Rose, can go for socialization and physical activities that have been sorely limited since she suffered a stroke four years ago.

The proposed building, to be called STAR Center, will be a universal-access facility where people with disabilities will be able to exercise and participate in physical and occupational therapy not available at other facilities, including hospitals, said Dr. Virginia Wintersteen, an orthopedic and pediatric surgeon who is spearheading the effort.

The $20 million STAR Center — the acronym stands for sports, therapeutic and adaptive recreation — is in its fundraising phase, with a $10.5 million target from the community and perhaps $6 million to $8 million in federal tax credits. It is an effort to promote health equity for all abilities — from the able-bodied to people with severe disabilities, said Wintersteen, who works at Gundersen Health System but whose work for the center is not connected with Gundersen.

The center, which would be located at Lang Drive and St. Andrew Street if Wintersteen’s plan succeeds, would benefit several groups of people, including patients recovering from surgeries or illness whose benefits for therapy have run out, military veterans who could save trips to Tomah for therapy, college students who could use the facility as a classroom to learn the craft of physical therapy and other medical pursuits, and the general public who could use meeting and resource rooms.

Socialization to avoid isolation

“It will be a place for socialization, because many people (with disabilities) are isolated in their homes,” said Wintersteen, who is president of the STAR Center Association.

The Lepsches are excited about the dual purposes, Bob said, adding, “We’re stranded at home, and it would be pretty nice to get out. I’m looking at that as a place to get out and socialize while Rose exercises.”

As their lives are now, “I can leave Rose for an hour or so,” but he said he hesitates to be gone much longer.

Bob and Rose, both 71, who met as students at Holy Trinity School in La Crosse and graduated from Aquinas High School in 1966, have been married for almost 50 years. He worked in the City Brewery’s power plant and she as a cook for the La Crosse School District.

“I am really gung-ho on this,” Bob said of the STAR Center.

Also keen on the project are 16-year-old Jackson Larson and his mother, Annette, who expect the center to expand Jackson’s opportunities to exercise. Jackson has Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that limits his movements because of joint instability.

He is able to play sled hockey, which Wintersteen suggested to help build core strength, Annette said. He has participated for three years in the Coulee Region Sled Hockey Association program, which includes practicing and playing some games at Green Island Ice Arena in La Crosse as well as traveling to other cities to compete.

Physical, mental benefits

The program has proved beneficial for Jackson both physically and mentally, his mom said.

“Giving my children opportunities in life they might not have is exciting. … I think it will be fantastic and a great addition to the community — great for adaptive sports,” Annette said.

Jackson, who attends Central High School in La Crosse, said, “In sled hockey, I like all of the teamwork and the competition — and sometimes slamming into each other.”

Jackson and his teammates, who range in age from 7 to 40, demonstrated their skills — sled hockey replicates regular hockey except that the players are on specially designed sleds — between periods of a Coulee Region Chill game Friday night at the Omni Center in Onalaska.

Wintersteen’s involvement with the hockey association propelled her to join forces with several others to launch the movement for the STAR Center, in light of the fact that one in five people has disabilities that limit the physical activity necessary to maintain health.

That means as many as 35,000 people in the Coulee Region, she said.

The group, which includes a 21-member board and an eight-member advisory board, wants to begin construction of the center next year, with a completion target of 2021, Wintersteen said.

Potential boon for veterans

Among the board members is Adam Flood, veterans service officer at the La Crosse County Veterans Office, who said the center can be a boon to veterans who now must travel to the Veterans Administration Center in Tomah.

“I think it is a great vision,” Flood said, if the center is able to forge a partnership with the VA to allow veterans to use their benefits while using the facility.

Although it is unclear how many veterans might use the facility, Flood said his office covers 26 counties with roughly 26,000 veterans.

Asked whether the center might include services already available, Flood said Wintersteen and the board are being vigilant about avoiding duplication.

The building will include an activity center featuring lap and therapy pools, a gymnasium, an exercise studio, strength and cardio area with adaptive equipment, specially equipped perimeter track, physical therapy rooms, a spin studio, a pediatric center and accessible men’s, women’s and family locker rooms.

Its life center will focus on other wellness areas, offering education, job training, targeted programming and clinical teaching. Another area, dubbed the disability resource center, aims to create a hub for community and funding sources, service providers and clients, with community partners offering various programs.

A veteran center will be just off of the lobby, offering a place for veterans to come for support, recreation and community, with access to all other services at the center, such as adaptive sports, recreation and exercise.

Plans are to enlist personnel from Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare and health-related classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College, Wintersteen said.

“The STAR Center will focus on best practices for therapy, because we know what you need to do to get healthy,” said Wintersteen, who noted that hundreds of college students — “2,300 at UW-L alone” — will be able to use the center to train, under professors’ supervision, for jobs in occupational and physical therapy, therapeutic recreation and recreation management.

“Collaborative and programming partners will provide disease- and disability-specific programming, job training and transitional living skills, employment for those with disabilities, and clinical class experiences, internships and employment,” according to the STAR website.

The STAR association, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, will own the building and keep it self-sustaining, Wintersteen said. The center will be inclusive and open to the public via memberships and other arrangements, she said.

Its amenities will include 90 pieces of adaptive equipment, four classrooms and an accessible apartment where people with disabilities will be able to learn how to perform tasks such as making their own beds and cooking meals so they can live independently, Wintersteen said.

The center has the potential to create a ripple effect that eventually may lead to lower costs for health care and other services, she said.

“If people get active, they will have better health and won’t need as many social services,” she said.

“It’s truly a unique pilot program that can change how we as a society approach challenges of people with disabilities,” she said.

“It’s truly a unique pilot program that can change how we as a society approach challenges of people with disabilities.” Dr. Virginia Wintersteen, orthopedic and pediatric surgeon and president of the STAR Center board of directors

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Reporter

Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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