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Egyptian Area Agency on Aging | Senior Volunteer Project
Newly funded senior program in Southern Illinois provides tutor program, meal delivery, companionship

MARION — Amber Neal said there is a silent need in Southern Illinois, and she is thrilled to help fill it.

In October, Neal was brought on to coordinate the recently funded Retired and Senior Volunteer Project for the Egyptian Area Agency on Aging. The program is funded through the Senior Corps and Neal said focuses on aggregating volunteers to work in a variety of capacities in the community. She said the three primary focuses of RSVP are their K-12 tutoring program, senior and veteran companionship for the homebound and meal delivery for seniors and vets. It looks to both serve seniors in need and help others become more integrated in their communities.

“We are just trying to fill a need in Southern Illinois,” Neal said.

Neal said she has worked with seniors in some capacity for most of her career, but said she was shocked particularly by the number of seniors needing a friendly face in their lives on a regular basis.

“The homebound senior companionship has been the biggest surprise to me,” she said, adding that she never realized how in-demand those services would be.

“My grandfather’s 95. He’s still able to drive. I had taken that so for granted,” she said, adding that she recognizes some simply do not have large, local family networks to rely on.

“There’s some of those seniors we work with, other than the paid staff that comes in to see them they have no one,” Neal said of the lives RSVP touches. “It’s just a friendly face to look forward to.”

Neal recalled one man she recently found a companion for who had one simple request — he wanted someone to come watch baseball with him. He said his dog didn’t get excited enough. Neal said she went through her list of volunteers until she found the perfect match for him.

Lonnie Young, an 84-year-old Marine, lives alone with his dog Shadow in Marion. He is unable to drive anymore but said he gets visits from friends, healthcare workers and some family that lives nearby, but said he's excited to get visits from an RSVP volunteer.

"It means another buddy in my life," Young said. He sat in his living room Wednesday with Becky Doiron talking of his travels, remembering his late wife — she died ten years ago — and laughing with his guest. 

Doiron shared his enthusiasm to have another friend in her life.

"I'm what you call a pretty lucky guy," Young said adding that he's happy to just still be able to have fun. 

Even beyond the seniors who are served by the RSVP programming, Neal said the volunteers gain something, too. She pointed to one man in particular who, she said, has “a thousand reasons to lay in bed all day and do nothing.” Instead, Neal said, he takes very seriously his volunteer work — not just his involvement with RSVP, but other groups as well well.

“It’s his reason to get up every morning,” she said.

Neal explained that the grant EAAA received to launch the RSVP program — which covers all of Southern Illinois through sponsorship by agencies like the EAAA — funds two salaries as well as volunteer mileage, volunteer meal reimbursement for certain sites, as well as a yearly volunteer recognition event. She said the reimbursements, however, cover only volunteers over the age of 55.

Neal said when she started in her position in October, she hit the ground running.

“We just kind of started going in and talking with people,” she said, adding that they were finding need and “filling it.”

This has led to 42 volunteers, all but three being seniors, and 16 different sites that they serve out of. Neal said for the first two months of operation, volunteers have accumulated 256 hours of service so far.

“I just think that’s amazing,” she said.

Neal said after this RSVP program went online, it closed the gap for such services in Illinois — there is currently an RSVP group operating in every county in the state, she said.

In a time when budgets are tight and needs are great, Neal said she is excited to be able to give, even a little, to help. She also said she is thrilled to find other like-minded people to work with.

“I have found so many people that are so willing to help and wanting to help. It’s just totally amazed me how many people are willing to step up,” Neal said.


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Wounded Warriors Duck Hunt
Wounded warriors find peace in duck blinds

WARE — When wounded veterans are discharged, they not only leave their units and base, but they also lose their support systems. One group of volunteers has spent the past nine years trying to make up for that loss.

Collin Cain, owner of Grassy Lake Hunting Club, has opened the club to veterans for the Wounded Warriors Duck Hunt. He gets a lot of help from Gary Adams of Fort Campbell, a volunteer with the Warrior Initiative, Lori Stettler of SIUC and Tom Goetz, chief organizer of the hunt.

“Gary, Tom and I put this together nine years ago. It’s the most rewarding and best thing I’ve ever done,” Cain said.

This year, 15 veterans affiliated with Fort Campbell took part in the hunt, along with guides and volunteers.

“How do you put into words what this means? With what they’ve done for us, we take them to hunt one day,” Cain said.

Matt Groves of Woodlawn, Tennessee, served in the Army eight years. He was a combat medic stationed at Fort Campbell. He was injured while deployed in Afghanistan in 2012 and medically discharged in 2016. He was accompanied by his service dog, Bocephus.

“This place is definitely dear to my heart. It makes me feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in very dark times,” Groves said. “These guys give me hope. When I hear things get quiet, there’s a peace.”

Groves said Bocephus is his anchor when he is out in public. The dog is trained to sense when Groves is getting stressed and help him destress.

“I wouldn’t get out in public as much without him,” Groves said.

Another participant was retired Col. Henry Clinton Ruth III, known by his nickname “Hawk.” Ruth said he has met a lot of wonderful people through this hunt.

“It helps a soldier with a handicap feel normal and commiserate with people who have the same issues,” Ruth said.

Ruth added that the word “hero” is used frequently today, but the men and women on this hunt are true heroes. He used a veteran from Arkansas as an example. 

“He had the courage to endure combat, but he also had the courage to nose forward and heal and be a great citizen, husband and father,” Ruth said.

Leroy White of Savannah, Tennessee, attends as many veterans’ hunts as he can, including ones in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and other locations.

White served in the miltary for 10 years. He entered the Air Force and retired from the Army. He was injured in a chemical explosion during a deployment in Iraq. The explosion exposed him and his lungs to raw chlorine, as well as injuring his shoulder and knees.

White worked as a gun truck chief which provided “close encounters” with IEDs. He was at the site of numerous IED explosions, either 100 yards ahead or behind him.

“It is one of the most dangerous jobs, other than door-kicking,” White said.

White was stationed at Fort Stewart for 15 months of medical treatment and counseling. He would encourage all veterans to seek counseling.

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Danny Cox came to visit and hunt with the veterans. He said he has a new appreciation for what veterans and their families experience. His son is stationed at Fort Campbell. This is the second year Cox had attended the hunt.

“America is eternally blessed through the service of our veterans,” Lori Stettler of SIUC said. “Your service makes America a better place and keeps us strong.”

State Rep. Terri Bryant and her son, Tyler, also hunted with the veterans.

“As a family member of a veteran, we are glad you are home,” Bryant said. “I will continue to pray for your well-being.”

Wayne Rosenthal, director of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, served 30 years in the Illinois Air National Guard. He told the vets he had one more take off than landing, meaning his plane crashed.

“You can never answer the question of why am I still here. You have wounds; let them heal,” Rosenthal said.

Ruth led those gathered in a jody call, a cadence used by military branches during physical training.

Ron McFadden, Gary Adams and Kristin Steakley presented battle flags to several volunteers, including Stettler, Cain and Dave Fombelle. The flags were flown in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Cain and Goetz said the event had many volunteers. Ray Crain barbecued the meat. Debra Ellis and the girls made side dishes and handed preparation for lunch and clean up. Dave Fombelle of The Blue Boar provided dinner Tuesday evening. The Davies School in Anna provided lodging and breakfast. SIUC provided tickets to a basketball game and honored the veterans at halftime.

For more information about the Warrior Initiative, visit www.warriorinitiative.org.


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Cairo Housing Crisis
Rauner says he's been kicking HUD 'in the pants'; HUD says try 'kick-starting the Cairo economy' instead

CAIRO — Gov. Bruce Rauner said on Saturday he’s been keeping after federal housing officials to “be more transparent” and to “move as fast as possible” as it relates to the housing crisis in Cairo.

“What we’ve encouraged HUD, and we’ve pushed them, because they’re a bureaucracy. And we’ve done, you know, we sent a letter to ’em. We’ve made calls and Kristy’s been pushing ’em,” Rauner said during an interview with The Southern Illinoisan in Cairo, referring to Kristy Stephenson, a policy adviser to the governor and his southern regional director.

“We need them to be, I’d like them to be, more transparent and also just to move as fast as possible," Rauner continued. "Sometimes a bureaucracy needs a kick in the pants. Well, we’ve been kicking ’em in the pants. You’ve been kicking ’em in the pants. This is good. This is what it takes.”

Rauner sent a letter last month to Acting Inspector General Helen Albert of the HUD Office of Inspector General, “to encourage the completion of the ongoing investigation” by HUD “into the past management practices of the Alexander County Housing Authority.”

“Additionally, I urge the results of the investigation be as transparent as possible for the benefit of local stakeholders and the residents impacted by the public housing crisis in Cairo," Rauner wrote in the letter. 

The letter was sent Nov. 14. It was one of several items provided to The Southern as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for all email communications between employees of HUD and Rauner’s office from April 10, when HUD officials announced that they would begin relocating about 185 families from two public housing complexes in Cairo, through Nov. 20, the date the request was made.

The emails provided as part of the public records request — only a handful of which pertained to Cairo — also showed that Sam Pfister, the director of federal affairs in Rauner’s office, sent an email on Nov. 13 to Victoria Barton, who works in HUD’s congressional relations department, asking a number of questions about the Cairo situation, such as about how many families had relocated, whether they are being “properly cared for,” about the process for obtaining relocation vouchers, whether there are residents without heat, and “HUD’s plan to get them into adequate housing.”

Both of the above mentioned emails from the governor’s office came after The Southern Illinoisan published a story on Nov. 8 titled “Where’s Gov. Rauner on Cairo housing crisis?” noting that numerous public officials — including HUD Secretary Ben Carson, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill, Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss and former candidate Ameya Pawar, State Treasurer Mike Frerichs, Sen. Dale Folwer, Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie and former Rep. Brandon Phelps, among others — had visited Cairo since HUD announced its relocation plan, but that the long list did not include Rauner.

Comptroller Susan Mendoza visited shortly after the story published, and while delivering turkeys to a social service provider in Cairo, said that Rauner was "all Carhartt and no heart" — a nod to his penchant for wearing the popular work wear brand. On Saturday, asked if he wanted to respond to her comment, Rauner said, "That's her role for Madigan is to say stuff like that. That's what Madigan directs her to do."

After Saturday’s visit — his first to Cairo since the April 10 relocation announcement — Rauner sat down with The Southern for a roughly 25-minute interview after touring Elmwood and McBride, as well as Little Egypt Estates, a small, privately-owned complex that 10 families are moving to from the developments slated for demolition. At the end of the interview, Rauner, unprompted by a particular question, made the statement about his administration kicking HUD “in the pants.”

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown responded, in an emailed statement, that “instead of looking the other way on a problem that festered in Illinois for decades, HUD took the lead on the relocation effort in Cairo.” Brown has previously acknowledged that there were oversight failures by the federal agency concerning the events that culminated in a housing crisis, but the federal housing agency has maintained that there were failures at all levels of government, not just at HUD. For instance, Brown said the economic crisis facing Cairo can not be laid at HUD's feet. 

“Our efforts were initiated prior to any inspiring motivational techniques employed by state officials,” Brown said. “Kick-starting the Cairo economy may prove to be more helpful.”

There have been growing tensions between HUD and the Illinois’ governor’s office of late. The Southern asked Rauner, during his visit to Cairo, to discuss the circumstances that led his office to pull the nomination of Joseph Galvan to chair the Illinois Housing Development Authority board in the spring of 2016. Galvan, who was recently named as the regional administrator for HUD’s Midwest Regional Office, held the unpaid state-level post for about 10 months upon being nominated by Rauner, but before the nomination was confirmed by the Senate.

Rauner told The Southern that the allegations received by his office resulting in the about-face on the nomination “seemed very serious and credible.” Rauner also noted that the allegations were forwarded to the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General, no findings have been forthcoming in the time since, and that he believes in an American justice system of innocent until proven guilty. Brown declined to comment on Rauner’s remarks.

Galvan was once a political ally of the governor and campaigned for him. Though of late, Galvan has posted several comments on his personal Facebook page indicating that Rauner has lost his support. For instance, Galvan posted “IVES FOR GOVERNOR” on Oct. 28, a reference to Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, who is challenging the first-term governor in the 2018 Republican primary.

On Dec. 4, Galvan shared a quote by Rauner that has circulated widely across Illinois — “I’m not in charge. I’m trying to get to be in charge.” — in which the governor claimed that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was really running the show. Galvan’s own commentary on the post, which accompanied a link to a story in the Chicago Tribune about Ives' primary challenge of Rauner, stated: “You are the Governor, but you proved you don’t know how to govern. Move aside.”

The emails obtained by The Southern in its FOIA request to Rauner's office about communications between the governor's staff and HUD staff also indicated that on Sept. 15, Pfister, Rauner's federal liaison, reached out to HUD staff for a call about the Cairo housing crisis that Barton, with the agency’s congressional office, set up for early the following week.

Though there was very little additional communication via email about Cairo between the governor’s office and HUD, at least according to what was returned in the FOIA request, Rauner’s spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, previously said that the office has mostly been working through Bost's congressional office to stay abreast of the situation. She also has said that Illinois Housing Development Authority officials conducted a survey of available housing in Cairo not long after HUD officials announced the relocation effort with an eventual plan to demolish Elmwood and McBride. And she noted that officials with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity helped city officials write grants to the Delta Regional Authority that were awarded for the local health clinic and to repair the entrance road to Bunge, one of the city’s largest employers. She also said phone calls between the governor's office and HUD officials would not have been reflected in the email correspondence provided to The Southern.

The Southern Illinoisan made at least two dozen requests for information and/or interviews about what Rauner’s office was doing to assist federal officials with the housing, health and economic crises facing Cairo from July until November. For weeks, those requests were at various times ignored, or prompted replies that the office was looking into the matter, and needed more time to respond. Eventually, in November, Schuh said that part of the issue was that HUD was not freely sharing information with the state it needed to determine where it could assist.

Brown, of HUD, offered to call Schuh. But Schuh told The Southern at the time that the governor's office was trying to work through Bost's office — rather than directly with HUD — so as not to create communication confusion. 

The Southern spoke with at least five different staffers in Rauner’s communication office through two significant staff transitions, most of whom are no longer working for the governor, between July and November.