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Education
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Elkhorn senior signs first majority esports scholarship

ELKHORN

Aidan Hamilton is among a new generation of players dramatically changing the way people view the mega world of gaming.

The 17-year-old senior at Elkhorn Area High School just signed the first majority esports scholarship in Wisconsin.

Esports is competitive video gaming.

Aidan is a top Rocket League player in Wisconsin and has led his team at Elkhorn Area High School to three state championship matches.

He received a 60% scholarship to attend Northwood University in the fall.

The private university in Midland, Michigan, is the current collegiate Rocket League national champion.

Anthony Wahl 

Aidan Hamilton, a senior at Elkhorn Area High School, is a top high school Rocket League player. He recently signed a 60% scholarship to attend Northwood University, which is the collegiate Rocket League national champion.

Aidan was not surprised when offered the scholarship.

“I was confident in myself,” he said.

The teen has played many hours a week to become a top Rocket League player.

“Over the years, the reason I kept playing the game is because I had a constant drive and resolve to get in the game and to stay there,” Aidan said.

Rocket League is a video game with two teams that use rocket-powered vehicles to hit a ball into their opponent’s goal to score points.

Cody Elsen, Aidan’s coach-to-be at Northwood, called the teenager among the top 200 Rocket League players in the world.

Elsen is director of esports at Northwood and offered Aidan the scholarship.

“Aidan is very, very skilled when it comes to reflexes and reaction time,” Elsen said. “He also knows proper positioning on the digital field.”

He described Aidan as driven with a high work ethic, “who is great academically.”

“Northwood is not the easiest school to get into,” Elsen said.

He called his players “not just a bunch of geeky people playing video games. They are passionate people who have a lot of brain power and skill.”

At Elkhorn Area High School, Aidan said he is an A and B student who is serious about grades as well as esports. His favorite courses are related to computer science, and he is thinking about a career in cybersecurity.

Jerry Iserloth, the esports coach at Elkhorn, watched Aidan grow from a player in his sophomore year to a leader in the game this year.

Michael Dahle is the assistant esports coach at Elkhorn and president of the Wisconsin High School Esports Association.

“From the statewide perspective, esports is growing exponentially,” Dahle said. “Four years ago, we had seven schools playing one game. Now, we have 100 high schools competing across four titles.”

Anthony Wahl 

Aidan Hamilton plays Rocket League, a vehicular soccer video game, on his home computer after school in Elkhorn on Wednesday.

Esports is growing because it appeals to young people who might not enjoy other outlets.

“We are starting to understand that not every student competes in traditional athletics nor are they involved in other extracurricular activities,” Dahle said.

He believes many people underestimate the skill that video gaming takes.

“There is a lot more complexity to it than most understand,” Dahle said. “The calculation and critical analysis these students perform in real time take years to develop. I hope we can get rid of the stigma that playing video games is antisocial and unhealthy.”

He called Aidan’s scholarship “an incredible accomplishment.”

“The scholarship should tell parents and communities that this is a legitimate opportunity that opens more doors for our students,” Dahle said.

Aidan’s mother, Noelle, used to think that video games were a waste of time.

Now she calls them a huge blessing.

Her son began playing video games as a way of having down time.

“Aidan has Asperger’s syndrome,” she said. “Sometimes socializing with others is hard for him. I can tell you there were days when he came home from middle school and said, ‘I am invisible.’ He would use those words, and I would cry. That is the worst thing a kid can say.”

Eventually, Aidan began playing Rocket League and excelled at it.

Noelle worried that Aidan might fall behind academically, but a member of her church took her aside and explained the value of video games.

Anthony Wahl 

Aidan Hamilton plays Rocket League, a vehicular soccer video game, on his home computer Wednesday in Elkhorn. He recently earned a scholarship to play Rocket League at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. ‘Over the years, the reason I kept playing the game is because I had a constant drive and resolve to get in the game and to stay there,’ he says.

Today, the student who once struggled socially has become a leader.

“Being on a three-member Rocket Team has caused him to talk to others and to take charge,” Noelle said. “I thought video games were socially isolating, but Aidan has made friends, he has networked, and he communicates with coaches and other tournament league players.”

She said gaming has changed her son’s life for the better.

When Aidan was at the scholarship signing celebration, he told his mother: “Look, I’m equal to the athletes. I’m not invisible.”

“He is still kind, compassionate and honest,” Noelle said. “What has changed is how he sees himself. He walks taller now.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.


Janesville Parker’s Anthony Brooks sheds the tackle attempt from Milton’s Jack Campion but is eventually called out of bounds as he turns upfield in the first half of their game at Monterey Stadium in Janesville on Friday, April 9.


Government
top story
'Somebody’s got to do it': Fire departments face staffing crisis

JANESVILLE

“This is part of the state test. You don’t make this, you go home,” barked firefighting instructor Paul Yakowenko to a class of recruits from Blackhawk Technical College last week.

Yakowenko was teaching a basic technique: passing through a 16-inch gap between two studs in a burning house in full gear, including a mask and air tank.

The training at the Janesville Fire Department’s training center was part of a course called Firefighter 1.

The state requires 60 hours of instruction before a recruit can go on a call.

Many fire departments require additional training, driven by the fear of lawsuits from damage or injury resulting from wrong decisions by young volunteers, said Rob Balsamo, fire science coordinator at Blackhawk Tech.

Among the recruits squeezing between the studs was Cameron Letts, 22, the newest recruit for the Footville Fire Department. The Janesville warehouse worker said he’ll get paid $7.25 an hour each time he goes on a call.

“I’m not in it for the money,” he said.

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Technical College firefighting students practice entering a structure with limited openings during a training session in Janesville on April 8. The students squeezed themselves through the wooden structure multiple times to build muscle memory on how to enter structures safely. The state requires 60 hours of instruction before a firefighter recruit can go on a call.

The same could be said for many hundreds of rural firefighters in the state these days. They are paid for each call, and they’re still called volunteers.

This “paid on call” system is one of many changes in rural firefighting driven by societal changes over the past 30 years, said Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering, who has served in rural departments around the state during that time.

The result has been a drop in volunteers and in some areas, longer response times.

The problem has crept up slowly, and it has become a crisis that few outside the fire service understand, Pickering said.

Another recruit in the Blackhawk Tech class was Phil Loduha, 30, a probationary member of the Brodhead Fire Department.

“I want to serve the community, and I know it takes volunteers serving to make it work,” he said.

Loduha grew up in Rockford, Illinois. During his past eight years of living in small towns, he has grown to love rural America.

“And I know it takes volunteers serving to make it work, to keep it what it is, and I wanted to be able to contribute to that. Somebody’s got to do it, and volunteer numbers are dwindling, so I really wanted to help out. …

“That is something that is always top-of-mind for department leadership, the recruiting aspect, finding new folks.”

Pickering, who has been a volunteer firefighter in several Wisconsin fire departments, said American society and the fire service have changed greatly over the years, and those changes are the root of the problem.

Anthony Wahl 

Cameron Letts tightens the strap to his mask as a group of Blackhawk Technical College firefighting students are timed putting on their fire safety gear during a recent training session in Janesville.

Call volumes

Pickering joined his first department 40 years ago. His department answered 356 calls that year, and that was considered a busy year.

Today, the Edgerton Fire Protection District handles 90 calls a month, including medical calls. That’s 1,080 calls a year.

Employers used to let workers who were volunteer firefighters run out the door once or twice a week to answer emergency calls. They saw it as supporting their community, Pickering said.

“But as demands have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, my guys were going out the doors three times a day,” he said. “No employer in the world who is trying to stay in business is going to let their employees run out the door three times a day.”

Letts said his employer has been understanding about him leaving work early to get the required training, but he won’t be rushing from work to answer calls. Rather, like a lot of volunteers these days, he will take his turn handling weekend shifts.

Family time

Husbands and wives often both work full-time jobs these days, Pickering noted.

“If they want to spend any time with their families, one or two calls a week back 30 years ago was at least doable,” he said.

But three times a day?

“You have more demands for service and people with less discretionary time to offer,” Pickering said.

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Technical College firefighting students wait in line as they practice entering a building through the space between wall studs during a training session in Janesville on April 8. Most rural fire departments in Wisconsin and across the country have found it increasingly difficult to attract new volunteers.

Stopgaps

Rural departments have responded by making changes that cost money. Pickering called it a Band-Aid approach to a problem that never stopped festering.

Paying by the call is one widespread change. Another is hiring a few career firefighters to staff shifts while keeping the volunteers.

Edgerton has six career firefighters and 42 who are paid per call. Milton has three career firefighters plus its volunteers, Pickering said.

Pickering spoke to The Gazette before his department began talking to the town of Milton, which is considering breaking away from its longtime joint fire department with the city of Milton.

The Milton Joint Fire Department, meanwhile, has been moving toward a full merger with the neighboring all-career fire department in Janesville.

Often, career employees staff the ambulances, which handle the bulk of calls these days, and they are there to get things rolling if there’s a fire, Pickering said. Volunteers fill in on nights and weekends.

Another solution is creating shifts that paid-on-call workers sign up to work.

“It really starts to get to the point of a part-time job,” Pickering said. “We call them ‘paid on premise.’ Of my 42 paid-on-call, we average about 1.5 a day in paid-on-premise time.”

The first step for all-volunteer departments is often to hire a full-time chief. Those chiefs typically also become the local fire inspector, a must-have because the state requires fire inspections.

Edgerton is required to perform 620 fire inspections a year, for example. That’s a lot of work on top of administrative duties.

Departments with ambulances often turn to full-time EMTs or paramedics to make sure they have the staff to take calls, Pickering said.

Pickering is a volunteer, but that’s unusual, he said. The advantage of a volunteer chief is that money is available for other paid staff.

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Technical College instructor Paul Yakowenko, right, watches as a student enters a second-floor window during a training session in Janesville.

Training

There was a time when a volunteer firefighter could jump on the truck and fight a fire with little training, but the state has increased its requirements over the years.

Some departments require even more training, which helps protect them from lawsuits over injuries or property damage during calls, said Blackhawk Tech’s Balsamo.

The minimum training now takes 60 hours. A full Firefighter 1 certification takes more than double that, Pickering said. It’s another burden that could dissuade potential volunteers.

Standards increase every year, Pickering said, and for good reason. Requirements include training on topics such as hazardous materials, blood-borne pathogens and cancer risk in firefighting.

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Technical College instructor Paul Yakowenko, right, checks a firefighting student’s mask during an April 8 training session in Janesville. The students had two minutes to be fully dressed with their masks on and oxygen operating.

Free time

Pickering’s staff must also train in water and ice rescue, as his department covers parts of Lake Koshkonong and two rivers frequented by boaters.

Pickering is proud of his staff’s handling of the situation. He talked about a recent Sunday in which Edgerton firefighters fully staffed two ambulance calls and requests for mutual aid for big fires in Beloit and Stoughton.

“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be focused on how to solve the problem. Finding people who’ve got the discretionary time to volunteer and assist is really hard right now,” he said.

Pickering’s approach: “Basically, you’re vying for people’s discretionary time. You have to create an environment where they see value in what they’re doing with their discretionary time. If they feel they’re treated with respect and treated to the context that what they’re doing is helping their community, and you provide training and good equipment and facilities, there are people out there who are willing to help. It can work, but it takes a lot of hard work to make that work.”

But Pickering knows of three other Wisconsin communities—he wouldn’t name them—where things have gotten so bad that when a call comes in, the 911 center dispatches all three fire departments.

Often, the crew for one call is cobbled together from two or three departments, and that extends the response time as EMTs travel to a next-door community.

Sometimes, volunteers will put off vacations because they fear their ambulance won’t be staffed, Pickering said.

The locals of the unnamed departments organized a meeting two years ago to educate elected officials, but none showed up, he said.

Anthony Wahl 

A Blackhawk Technical College firefighting student braces the ladder as another climbs down from a second-floor opening in a structure during a training session in Janesville. Each student practiced climbing up and down the ladder and learned how to properly enter an upper-floor window.

Response time

Pickering pointed to a chart by the American Heart Association that shows for every one minute of delay in emergency care of a heart attack, survival chances drop 10%.

Likewise, the chances for a structure to survive drop fast if a fire in a room doesn’t feel the gush from a fire hose within seven minutes, he said.

“The policymakers are absolutely immune to getting their heads around how bad this problem is,” Pickering said.

Lawmakers haven’t been totally deaf. The state Department of Safety and Professional Services recently proposed a grant program to promote training partnerships among fire departments, technical colleges and high schools.

The program would allow training to begin in high school. Credits would apply toward high school graduation and firefighter preparation programs.

Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes promoted a youth firefighting program when he appeared before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in Whitewater on April 9, requesting $100,000 for a pilot program.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers grants to help fire departments recruit and retain firefighters. But the grants are competitive. Only 17 have been awarded to Wisconsin departments since 2015.

Congressional proposals to make volunteer fire and EMS personnel eligible for student loan forgiveness and housing assistance have not passed, according to news reports. Other proposals include modifying the tax code to make it easier for local communities to offer incentives.

Anthony Wahl 

Logan Gragg of Orfordville climbs a ladder to a second-floor opening in a training structure during a training session in Janesville on April 8.

Costs

Tax dollars pay for a lot of fire department expenses, but with state caps on how much municipalities can raise through property taxes, most volunteer departments still hold fundraisers to help pay for equipment.

“A fire engine at minimum can cost you $300,000, and that’s a cheap one,” Balsamo said. “Firefighting gear without the air pack is $3,000, minimum.”

“We, thank heavens, have a very, very vibrant (fundraising) association that supports us really well,” Pickering said. “This year, we’re having to replace all cardiac monitors in the ambulances,” at a cost of “well over $100,000.”

“I don’t think people realize the amount of time and energy it takes to manage a fire department as well as all the resources needed to provide that fire (and rescue and ambulance) protection,” Balsamo said.

The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates nationwide volunteer numbers have dropped from 884,600 to 682,600 in 2017.

“The scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address,” the council’s chairman, Kevin Quinn, said at the time.

The council’s study showed firefighters as a group were aging, with 53% over age 40, compared with 37% in 1987—an indicator of fewer young recruits than in the past.

Brodhead fire recruit Loduha might belong to a small elite group who are inspired by the chance to serve.

“There are some people there who are professionals in other departments as their full-time job, and they volunteer in Brodhead,” Loduha said. “It’s really awesome to be able to train with and learn from people who do it for a living.”

Rural fire chiefs across the state, no doubt, would love to see a lot more recruits with Loduha’s attitude walking through their doors.


Newspapers
Obituaries and death notices for April 16, 2021

Jeffery R. Didelot

Kristeen E. Farberg

Scott Dean Ferguson

Kathleen M. “Kathy” Heider

Debra L. “Deb” Krafjack

Elaine A. (Pedretti) Kubiak

Rosemary Louise Ludwig

Audrey A. (Anderson) Lund

Darrell L. Norder

Joanne E. Pingel

Gloria Estelle Secor

James F. Unbehaun Sr.

Elizabeth Ann Welch


Local
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State data: Rock County renters far more likely to get evicted than elsewhere in state

JANESVILLE

A state agency’s new probe into homelessness shows that in Rock County, tenants facing eviction are nearly twice as likely to be expelled from their homes by court order than elsewhere in Wisconsin.

That’s just one eye-opening slice of data that shows how housing stability—and prospects for those who have fallen behind on their rent—aren’t necessarily on a level playing field throughout Wisconsin.

On Thursday, Michael Basford, the director of the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness rolled out new data from a program Gov. Tony Evers launched to track monthly tenant evictions in every Wisconsin county.

Basford’s made a virtual presentation to local residents hosted by a consortium of Rock County social service agencies.

The new state data shows that the rate of eviction judgments in Rock County in 2019 and part of 2020 was about 18.4% of all eviction cases filed. That was far higher than the state average eviction rate, which is about 11%, and most of those evictions occurred in the county’s urban centers, Janesville and Beloit, according to data Basford provided.

“That is something that folks should really be concerned about,” Basford said.

By comparison, Dane and Milwaukee counties saw between 4% and 5% of all landlord eviction filings end with a judge ruling to evict tenants.

That disparity comes as local housing agencies wrestle with what they say is continued housing instability and a shortage of affordable rental housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to strain the lowest wage earners in Rock County.

Statewide data shows that Black and Hispanic residents in Wisconsin—particularly single women with children—are two or three times more likely to be evicted than their white counterparts, said Korey Lundin, a Madison attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, a group that works to represent clients who are in poverty, including people who face eviction.

Lundin said the higher rate of eviction here in some ways is tied to eviction policies written into Rock County’s unique circuit court protocols on eviction, which he said under normal circumstances can rush eviction judgments through in a matter of a few weeks, typically after a single court hearing unless tenants understand and can navigate a complex legal process to contest eviction.

Those protocols, which Lundin said local circuit court judges are allowed to review and establish, are “vastly different” than in other counties in Wisconsin, he said.

The protocols, while legal, combine with state law changes over the last decade that Lundin and Basford said rolled back local and county governments’ ability to set local rules to limit rent increases.

Also, state law allows landlords to deny housing to prospective tenants who have had evictions filed against them, even if the filings were withdrawn or thrown out by a judge. And the state isn’t required to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction.

That’s even though the consequence—being removed from a home—is “just as dire” as the outcome in criminal cases where people are jailed or incarcerated, Lundin said.

Federal programs continue at least through midyear this year to offer moratoriums on eviction for rent nonpayment during the pandemic, and new and emerging state and federal programs to assist those who face eviction because of economic hardship tied to the pandemic are slated to roll out this year.

Basford said Evers’ new state budget the governor unveiled earlier this year includes “the largest investment in fighting homelessness in the state’s history.”

He said the governor wants to include more investment to help develop more affordable housing along with a doubling down on spending on homelessness prevention programs. Some other ideas include a $2 million investment in legal aid for indigent residents, including representation on eviction claims they might face. But while these measures are in the governor’s proposed budget, leaders of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee have said they anticipate writing their own budget plan.

Meanwhile, the housing strain continues for some Rock County residents.

Jessica Locher, director of the Janesville nonprofit social service agency ECHO, said during Thursday’s virtual presentation that the bulk of rent-assistance clients her agency serves earn an average of $26,000 or less to support a family of four. That’s less than half the median family income for Rock County families.

Another unrelated study released this week by national analyst Self Financial found that minority workers in Rock County, who make up about 17% of the labor force, on average earn about $15,000 less a year than white, non-Hispanic workers, which ranks significantly below the national average wage for Black and Hispanic workers, according to the study.

Locher said local data shows that of the 551 children who are considered homeless who attend the Janesville and Beloit school districts, 60% are either Black, Hispanic or multiracial.

While the pandemic has bogged down some court proceedings, moratoriums have blunted evictions statewide, Basford and Lundin said. But they pointed out that some judges statewide aren’t following eviction moratoriums for nonpayment.

Basford and Lundin said they have seen anecdotal indications that landlords in some parts of Wisconsin are getting around pandemic-era rent nonpayment eviction moratoriums by simply filing for eviction for other non-rent reasons.

Basford suggested that some rules a landlord otherwise might let slide “suddenly become very, very enforceable” once tenants fall behind in rent.

“It’s not something we can exactly measure,” he said.


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