STEELEVILLE — Part of Paula Owen’s family history lives in her refrigerator.
In two jars sits yeast that Owen said was given to her 42 years ago by her mother when she married, just as her mother had done in 1918. Owen said the culture, made by feeding the yeast with sugar and the water discarded from boiling potatoes, was at least a century old if not older. In fact, while Owen knows for certain her grandmother kept it, she said it is the family story that her great-grandmother actually brought the culture from Germany.
The yeast and the special family sandwich bread recipe that is made with it has always been a part of Owen’s life.
“I watched my mom bake all the time,” Owen said, remembering how her mother baked bread for the family at least once a week. “She made it every week and sometimes other people in Percy, where she lived, they would call her and ask her to make them some and so she did."
When Owen married and started her own family, she kept the tradition up, baking for her family and though her household is a lot smaller now — she lives with just her husband, Gene, in Steeleville — she still feeds the starter once a week and tries to bake at least every other. She said she gets a good feeling every time she bakes with it.
“You know, it makes you feel good that you are still keeping it going,” she said of the tradition. Owen also said she enjoys remembering her mother every time she bakes.
Bread was not the only thing Owen’s mother made with her special yeast culture. There were coffee cakes, cinnamon buns and donuts, too. As for recipes though, Owen said those are hard to come by.
“When she had recipes, she didn’t write it down. She said, ‘You just use a pinch of this and that,’ and she said, ‘You do it by feel,’” she said laughing.
Owen said her mother was very secretive about the yeast culture.
“She wouldn’t give it out to anybody and when she gave it to me, I was really happy about it,” Owen said.
Indeed, the yeast has likely only left the family one time. Owen said when her children were small, she baked her family’s special bread for a school bake sale. One customer loved the bread so much she got in touch and asked Owen how to make it. Owen said she gave the woman a portion of the yeast, but isn’t sure if she kept the tradition going.
Owen, a second-shift worker at Gilster Mary-Lee, said she doesn’t have much time to bake. However, she took days off for Thanksgiving to mix up four loaves, which she divides into halves — she planned to make the stuffing for Thursday’s meal with it.
“They know it’s homemade bread and they said it’s better, it tastes better with it,” she said of her children.
Owen said, as of right now, she is the only person still keeping the yeast that she knows of — she is the only girl in her family and her brothers didn’t express interest in keeping up the family tradition. She said one daughter has expressed an interest but, because of her schedule, has not been able to keep the yeast Owen gave her alive.
At 67, Owen still has years of baking left, but said she is hopeful the tradition won’t die with her — hopefully a child or even a grandchild will keep the family tradition alive.
“I’m hoping that as they see me doing it all the time that they will eventually do it,” Owen said.
MURPHYSBORO — In the open garage shed, Timothy Harper has eighth-grader Mariella Darnell read numbers from a sheet, then he goes to double-check that the bike is among the two dozen or so laying or standing on the shed's floor.
When a match is made, he — or student Drake Rogus — takes that bike and stands it up on one side of the shed, bike handles down, wheels up in the air.
The bikes have just been delivered by the Murphysboro Police Department to the Murphysboro Middle School Bike Club, whose members will repair or salvage parts from the bikes or sell the refurbished other bikes to benefit the club. The bikes are surplus bikes from the police department, which had had them for at least six months and been unable to locate their owners, with some also being bikes formerly used by the Murphysboro Police Department.
This work represents a multi-agency relationship, all around the issue of bicycling, not just for youth involved, but in the community, which is continuing to grow as a bike city.
It was 15 years ago that middle school teacher Mary Beth Aguilar created the Murphysboro Middle School Bike Club. Each year, the club has had a number of students, anywhere from the two dozen to the 59 it has today.
She offers it as not only a chance for youth to learn about bicycling and about repairing bikes, but also to experience nature in this area and to use bicycling to help them complete community service projects.
It's one of the reasons that youth like Aaron Rebman join the club. At the club's meeting this past Tuesday, he helped to rake up leaves alongside the fence area at the club's bike garage.
The club's influence could be growing.
The roughly two dozen bikes donated to the club from the Murphysboro Police Department came through a suggestion made by one of its newest volunteers, officer Harper. The group had had a volunteer from the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, but that deputy is no longer involved.
Murphysboro Police Chief Chad Roberts said he encouraged his officers to become involved in the community in some aspect. Harper, one of the department's newer officers, was already interested in bicycling; Roberts said he had received a request for help from Aguilar, but had no one who fit for what she was requesting.
Until Officer Harper.
"He has really just (taken this to a different level)," Roberts said. "He's a very good example of what happens when police officers get involved in the community."
The group is also benefiting from a $1,000 bike kiosk, compliments of the Jackson County Health Department, whose officials chose to install the item outside the Murphysboro Middle School. The Dero Fix-It Bike Station is a slender upright-standing bar contraption, with tools for repairing a bike attached to it by cables. The top of the Dero Fix-It station is designed to hold a bike positioned there so an individual can work on his or her bike.
A user can take out their smartphone and use it to read a bar code on the Dero Fix-It Station to access a list of videos on YouTube that lead one in making bike repairs.
In addition to the repair station, the Jackson County Health Department also had a metal, apple-shaped bike rack installed at the middle school and also installed a Fix-It Station at the Boys and Girls Club and another Fix-It Station and bike rack at the De Soto Middle school.
There are seven other Dero Fix-It Stations on the campus of Southern Illinois University, according to Michelle McLernon, director of Health Education for the health department.
"Our ultimate goal was to increase physical activity and develop active transportation system through changes in the built environment that promote a bicycle-friendly environment," McLernon said.
Editor's note: Ryan Michalesko is a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Carbondale Community High School graduate. He has freelanced for The Southern as a photographer for several years. He is currently reporting on the devastation in Puerto Rico with a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
AIBONITO, Puerto Rico — Electricity is a necessity for many, but for Karen Feliciano, the need for power is about her son’s survival.
“He’s 18 years old but functions like a baby,” Feliciano said of her son, Kenny. “He can't do anything so I do everything for him, and I need electricity to do it all.”
The teenager is legally blind and suffers from a number of physical and neurological diseases, including cerebral palsy, microcephaly and encephalomalacia, Karen said.
“When he was born, the doctors said he would only live to six,” she said.
It’s been nearly 60 days since electricity last flowed through the Jimenez Feliciano home — which makes it nearly two months since Kenny last received necessary respiratory therapy or was able to follow his regular diet.
“Since he’s not getting his therapy, he’s not doing as well with the cold, humidity and mold,” Feliciano said.
Without being able to puree his food, Feliciano has been forced to feed Kenny a mixture of canned milk and baby food. Kenny’s breathing is also limited without proper respiratory therapy.
This leaves Kenny unable to get what he needs to function at his highest level, she said.
After writing a petition, Feliciano collected nearly 70 neighborhood signatures to submit to town leaders asking for an explanation as to why the neighborhood’s power has yet to be restored.
“We’ve been told we don’t have electricity because of a couple of light posts,” the petition reads. “This situation is worrying us because in this community there are many elderly people, kids with special needs and bed-ridden people that depend on electricity to power special equipment in order to continue to live.”
Because they say they have received little aid locally, Feliciano and her husband, Pedro Jimenez, traveled to San Juan to tell Kenny’s story and search for help at the Joint Field Office — where the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Maria efforts are headquartered.
They weren’t allowed through the front gate.
“We were literally trying to talk to anyone going in and out of the center,” Jimenez said. “Now we are waiting for a visit or even a call from FEMA, but nothing yet.”
The Joint Field Operations Center, an administrative and operations facility, is not equipped to handle applicant questions, said Daniel P. Llargués, FEMA National Spokesperson for the Hispanic Media.
“It was an unfortunate misunderstanding and we regret that it took place,” he added.
The family’s street is one of only a few still without power in Aibonito, a town of nearly 26,000, and they haven’t been given an estimate as to when it will be restored.
“The electric pole that went down is right there,” Feliciano said, pointing across the street. “We called the electric company and told them all of the needs we have, but they just told us we’ll have to wait — even if we can see the light so close.”
The Autoridad de Energía Electrica, Puerto Rico’s consolidated electric company, did not respond to numerous attempts for comment.
The family relied on generators for the first days following the storm, but both failed, leaving them in the dark.
“It’s depressing because you see yourself surrounded by everyone with light and power, and you don’t have any of that,” she said.
Most mornings, Feliciano wraps her arms around Kenny and carries him to the middle bench seat of her red Dodge Caravan and drives him to school.
Except now, instead of driving him around the corner to a school built to accommodate his needs, she takes him to a building that was structurally prepared to withstand the strength of a Category 4 hurricane.
Though it’s built to handle extreme weather, it isn’t prepared to properly facilitate special education students like Kenny.
Rosario Belber Elementary, destroyed by the storm, was the only public school in the central part of the island qualified to work with students with severe disabilities, said the school’s director, Myraimar Berríos Ferrer.
“Current plans call for a new space to be remodeled to fit the needs of the students’ disabilities at a nearby school,” she said.
The new location won’t be ready for students until January, Ferrer added.
For the time being, the students of Belber have been moved to Jose C. Barbosa school in Aibonito, but the transition has been less than ideal.
“It’s really hard on the kids to move them from school to school,” said Nancy Santiago, a special education teacher at Belber. “We’ve already spent two weeks in this new school, but the students haven’t adapted yet. It takes a lot of time.”
The decision to stay and rebuild Belber wasn’t up to the teachers and families, however. Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher made the decision to move the school because of the high estimated cost to fix the structure.
“Our school is important, and we will do all that we can for our students,” Ferrer added.
While administrators say plans are in the works, Feliciano remains skeptical.
“The truth is, I don’t have a lot of high hopes, because I haven’t seen plans for anything that they tell us they’re going to do,” she said. “Come May, I think we’ll still be here in the same ‘temporary’ school.”
Findings from the first epidemiological study on the state of mental health in Puerto Ricans since 1985 show about 7 percent of Puerto Rican adults between the ages of 18 and 64 suffer from a serious mental illness.
The study, carried out last year by the Behavioral Sciences Research Institute in the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, was needed by the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services to justify the allocation of federal funds for addressing this problem.
“Chronic stress and traumatic events exacerbate mental illness,” according to Glorisa Canino, Ph.D., who served as Principal Investigator for the report. “It’s also easy to explain the higher rates in depression due to the economic recession.”
The aftermath of the disaster has in many ways been worse than the storm, she said.
“Hurricane Maria could be considered traumatic, but also a current stressor,” Canino said. “In Puerto Rico’s case, the aftermath of the hurricane has been worse because of the lack of power and water that still isn’t available.”
The oldest daughter of the family, Kendra Jimenez Feliciano, 15, says her family is no exception. She and her father, Pedro Jimenez, are both psychiatric patients.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and feel like everything is coming at me all at once,” Kendra said. “There are moments that I have to try to block it all out.”
Pedro’s aunt died around two weeks after the storm, he said. Doctors suspect she contracted an infection from creek water while washing clothes.
“I still really haven’t gotten over that,” Pedro said as he clasped his hands tightly and looked down at the ground.
Kendra said she and Pedro won’t be able to get another appointment with a local psychological doctor until February.
“There are no doctors available in the local facility that we go to until well after the New Year,” she added.
The effects of Hurricane Maria oftentimes increase Pedro and Kendra’s uneasy mindsets, leaving Karen to care for the family single-handedly —including Kenny and her autistic 6-year-old daughter Kylia.
“Sometimes I feel alone,” Karen said. “I have to do a lot to keep everyone going, but I have to do it. I do it all for the kids.”
— Harold Camilo contributed to this report,which was funded by a Pulitzer Center grant.