Kyle D. Atwood
Wesley J. Foster
Darlene M. Larson
Robert W. “Bob” Zastoupil
The YMCA of Northern Rock County recently spent about $10,000 to freshen up the look and functionality of the child watch room in its downtown Janesville location off West Court Street.
The face-lift is noticeable because:
Optics like that might be important, but it’s what’s behind the optics—change—that new CEO Angie Bolson sees as the future for an institution that was under a black cloud just a year ago.
Bolson arrived in the months after longtime CEO Tom Den Boer left the Y. Den Boer’s departure came after a league of members threatened lawsuits over complaints Den Boer flouted bylaws by improperly removing board and gym members who sought more transparency in the organization’s governance and financial dealings.
Bolson, a former leader at the Y in Oconomowoc, took over in Janeville in August. Since March, she had been one of two interim directors who had been working to inventory what might need mending at the Y—both the old facility’s bones and its reputation.
In an interview last week, Bolson said she and a board committee this summer made several changes to the bylaws. One such change, she said, is that the CEO no longer will handle disciplinary or “termination” actions against gym or board members. That will be the board’s job.
The Y now is in the midst of a $100,000 face-lift that involves infrastructure revamps, replacement of 40-year-old carpeting and an overall freshening of spaces Bolson said haven’t seen a lot of TLC in years.
What might have gone unnoticed by the public or some of the 6,000-plus members, she said, are recent efforts to mend fences with community groups and the school district—relationships that had become fractious under former leadership.
“A face-lift to the facility and a brand-new, fancy logo is important, but more important is that behind that logo is the way we start portraying ourselves in the community,” she said. “We need to start telling the story about a Y that makes and builds great relationships.”
This fall, Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal joined the Y’s board. That could be pivotal: Bolson said it comes as the Y has begun to reach out to the school district to try to rekindle their educational partnership.
The Y once served as one location for P4J, the school district’s prekindergarten program. That partnership was severed last year under Den Boer’s leadership.
“Collaboration between us (Y and the school district) is really important. I feel like if we have thriving school districts, we have a thriving community,” Bolson said.
“I’m working really hard with the district to show them that we’re ready and capable of getting P4J back. The YMCA is a national leader in child care. This is what we do. Sitting in the Fourth Ward and sitting in the area we do, the center of the city, this is an area where we need to serve.”
Last year, the United Way Blackhawk Region barred the Y from receiving any grant funding over the next two years. The decision stemmed from grant requests submitted by the Y that United Way leaders said showed financial “inconsistencies” and “potentially misrepresented information.”
Y leaders and new board members—some of whom were reinstated this year after being removed by Den Boer—have been talking to the United Way’s board about how two organizations can work together more cohesively, Bolson said.
“At the end of the day, in order to be a partner, we need to have a shared impact, and we need to be transparent,” she said. “A level of transparency is what’s needed for their (United Way’s) donor base? It’s simple. To me, the transparency is low-hanging fruit because that’s what we should be doing anyway.”
That might be the right answer, too, for Y members—particularly the 53 members whose concerns sparked an internal review by the board and the YMCA of the USA that culminated in Den Boer’s departure.
In early November, the Y held its annual meeting, which was part fundraiser dinner, part town hall for members.
Bolson said members who attended—230 of them—didn’t voice a lot of concerns or questions.
That might be because the Y held several town halls for members earlier this year. And for the first time in years, the Y has placed comment boxes in its facilities in Janesville and Milton.
Bolson thinks many members and the revamped board are starting to see it’s time for change—and also time to move forward.
The dinner fundraiser brought in $40,000, including donations from members who had been kicked out under Den Boer. That event was more successful in raising donations than the Y’s Tropical Fiesta fundraisers held over the last decade, Bolson said.
“After the dinner, people came up to me and said, ‘It feels like the band is back together,’” she said. “I’ve learned in a short time that this community is resilient and forgiving. Hope is exactly the word I’d use to describe that.”
Gary Phillips broke out in a grin and shook his head when asked if he imagined downtown Orfordville would grow the way it has in the last five years.
“No way,” the Orfordville Village Board president said with a chuckle, spitting tobacco juice into a plastic soda bottle.
The pounding of a hammer echoed outside as he talked, and men with tool belts strapped to their waists listened to country music as they surveyed the building.
It’s a scene that many in this village of just less than 1,500 people have welcomed.
“I definitely didn’t see the progress coming this fast,” Phillips said. “It’s a fun time right now in Orfordville. You can really see things coming along.”
When Phillips first joined the village board nearly six years ago, growth didn’t seem possible. He suggested the city create an economic development committee, and he helped get it going.
Since 2017, the face of downtown has changed. After years of empty or unmanaged storefronts, most downtown buildings have been renovated and are open for business. A chamber of commerce was created last year to help local businesses.
Village board member Beth Schmidt serves on the economic development committee and the planning commission. She said Orfordville has added restaurants, a coffee shop, a Dollar General, an auto repair shop, a photography business and more in the last two years.
“We offered up some incentives for downtown businesses,” Schmidt said. “There’s no more empty storefronts. It kind of is surreal when I sit down and think about it.”
Longtime businesses such as Villa Pizza and Knute’s Bar & Grill have expanded their presences. Schmidt said residents now have eight different places to eat locally.
The push for a redeveloped downtown isn’t a recent phenomenon. A community survey 30 years ago showed improving the downtown was a priority for residents.
Another survey 10 years later echoed that sentiment, and the latest survey five years ago asked for the same three things: a library, grocery store and a new downtown.
Residents eventually got their library, and Dollar General serves as the local grocery store. With the new shine on downtown, residents are finally checking all the boxes.
“Those three things will not pop up if we do a new survey because all those needs are filled,” Schmidt said. “The community feel is amazing. There’s just a lot of good things happening here.”
Phillips said a lot of the growth has been sparked by new residents. The Orfordville of the past had an aging population, but recent homebuyers have been young families.
Two village board members elected in April have lived in the area less than two years, Phillips said. A number of residents also have asked how they can help—something Phillips sees as a sign people want to work together.
“In the last three years, there’s a lot more people out walking than before, and I think a lot of that is those new residents,” he said. “They seem to want to have an active role in this community.
“They’re coming to town, and they’re wanting to pitch in and help.”
The village has encouraged that help with efforts such as “Adopt a Pot,” which lets residents buy flower pots with their names on them for the downtown area. In the future, Phillips hopes to add more flowers on downtown curbs and streets.
“You’ve got to be creative,” he said. “Downtown almost has to have a niche market. It’s got to be outside the box, and with some time, we can get there.”
The ideas might seem small, but he thinks they make a big difference.
“Is it a big deal? I think it is, and I would hope that the residents do, too. When you go into a village and you look around, you notice whether or not it’s upkept,” he said.
“We’re trying to keep the village well-kept, so when people do come into town they want to stop, drive around and—what the heck—maybe buy a house in town.”
In December, the village will have all new faces in the public works department, compared to a year ago. Phillips believes this will give the community a chance to create an identity as a place that prides itself on appearance and togetherness.
“We’re going to do things differently,” he said. “We’re going to try to keep things looking tidy and get things fixed when they need to be fixed.”
The public works director will focus more on parks in the next year.
“When you think of Orfordville, there’s no real identity, so we’re trying to create an identity,” he said.
Orfordville’s next task is adding residential to match the business development, officials said. The village is currently working with landowners to buy and develop residential lots.
“We need homes,” Schmidt said.
An investor and Parkview High School graduate recently built four homes and sold them almost immediately, Schmidt said. The investor now is preparing to build seven duplexes.
Village officials also want to focus on selling the open lots in the business park. The asking price: $10,000 apiece.
Schmidt said the village could consider buying more property for the business park.
“It’s really cool to think we’re full downtown … but that we now can focus on residential and business park growth. We want to retain business, too,” she said.
Jason Nehls owns nearly half of the downtown buildings and runs three businesses in Orfordville.
He’s happy to see the recent growth, and he sees more in the future.
“I think it came together pretty quickly thanks to a lot of different people,” said Nehls, who opened his first business in 1996.
“We’ve still got a long way to go to fill some holes. You can only add so many businesses when you only have so many spots. I’d like to … get some more retail and some more housing down there.”
In the next year or so, Nehls hopes to build a three-story building on an empty lot downtown. Part of the building will be dedicated to residential space.
While the village continues to figure out the best ways to attract visitors, residents can enjoy the progress, Phillips said.
“I think we’re headed in a much more shopper-friendly environment. We’re trying to create a destination for people to come to,” he said.
“We welcome people. There’s been a lot of investment here, and we’re proud of it. We want people to come to Orfordville to eat, play and stay.”
The next time you get sick, your care may involve a form of the technology people use to navigate road trips or pick the right vacuum cleaner online.
Artificial intelligence is spreading into health care, often as software or a computer program capable of learning from large amounts of data and making predictions to guide care or help patients.
It already detects an eye disease tied to diabetes and does other behind-the-scenes work like helping doctors interpret MRI scans and other imaging tests for some forms of cancer.
Now, parts of the health system are starting to use it directly with patients. During some clinic and telemedicine appointments, AI-powered software asks patients initial questions about their symptoms that physicians or nurses normally pose.
And an AI program featuring a talking image of the Greek philosopher Aristotle is starting to help University of Southern California students cope with stress.
Researchers say this push into medicine is at an early stage, but they expect the technology to grow by helping people stay healthy, assisting doctors with tasks and doing more behind-the-scenes work. They also think patients will get used to AI in their care just like they’ve gotten accustomed to using the technology when they travel or shop.
But they say there are limits. Even the most advanced software has yet to master important parts of care like a doctor’s ability to feel compassion or use common sense.
“Our mission isn’t to replace human beings where only human beings can do the job,” said University of Southern California research professor Albert Rizzo.
Rizzo and his team have been working on a program that uses AI and a virtual reality character named “Ellie” that was originally designed to determine whether veterans returning from a deployment might need therapy.
Ellie appears on computer monitors and leads a person through initial questions. Ellie makes eye contact, nods and uses hand gestures like a human therapist. It even pauses if the person gives a short answer, to push them to say more.
“After the first or second question, you kind of forget that it’s a robot,” said Cheyenne Quilter, a West Point cadet helping to test the program.
Ellie does not diagnose or treat. Instead, human therapists used recordings of its sessions to help determine what the patient might need.
“This is not AI trying to be your therapist,” said another researcher, Gale Lucas. “This is AI trying to predict who is most likely to be suffering.”
The team that developed Ellie also has put together a newer AI-based program to help students manage stress and stay healthy.
Ask Ari is making its debut at USC this semester to give students easy access to advice on dealing with loneliness, getting better sleep or handling other complications that crop up in college life.
Ari does not replace a therapist, but its designers say it will connect students through their phones or laptops to reliable help whenever they need it
USC senior Jason Lewis didn’t think the program would have much for him when he helped test it because he wasn’t seeking counseling. But he found that Ari covered many topics he could relate to, including information on how social media affects people.
“Everybody thinks they are alone in their thoughts and problems,” he said. “Ari definitely counters that isolation.”
Aside from addressing mental health needs, artificial intelligence also is at work in more common forms of medicine.
The tech company AdviNOW Medical and 98point6, which provides treatment through secure text messaging, both use artificial intelligence to question patients at the beginning of an appointment.
AdviNOW CEO James Bates said their AI program decides what questions to ask and what information it needs. It passes that information and a suggested diagnosis to a physician who then treats the patient remotely through telemedicine.
The company currently uses the technology in a handful of Safeway and Albertsons grocery store clinics in Arizona and Idaho. But it expects to expand to about 1,000 clinics by the end of next year.
Eventually, the company wants to have AI diagnose and treat some minor illnesses, Bates said
Researchers say much of AI’s potential for medicine lies in what it can do behind the scenes by examining large amounts of data or images to spot problems or predict how a disease will develop, sometimes quicker than a doctor.
Future uses might include programs like one that hospitals currently use to tell doctors which patients are more likely to get sepsis, said Darren Dworkin, chief information officer at California’s Cedars-Sinai medical center. Those warnings can help doctors prevent the deadly illness or treat it quickly.
“It’s basically that little tap on the shoulder that we all want to get of, ‘Hey, perhaps you should look over here,’” Dworkin said.
Dr. Eric Topol predicts in his book “Deep Medicine” that artificial intelligence will change medicine, in part by freeing doctors to spend more time with patients. But he also notes that the technology will not take over care.