Six-year-old Levi Kingsley managed to give his mom 27 kisses during his first hour out of bed the other morning.
“There are days when the kisses are unstoppable,” his mother, Gretchen Kingsley, said.
She has so much to be thankful for this Mother’s Day, with her new son, Levi, among the best reasons.
Gretchen and her husband, Aaron, adopted the boy with Down syndrome from China in December.
They left the country with him shortly before China’s massive clampdown in response to the coronavirus and before the U.S. imposed travel restrictions.
“We truly got out just in time,” 37-year-old Gretchen said. “We have many friends who are unable to get their (adoptive) children.”
A woman of strong faith, Gretchen thanks God for making all the pieces come together.
Gretchen and Aaron are no strangers to international adoption.
In May 2018, they brought home teenagers Maliyah and Mira from Ukraine after hosting them through the international program Open Hearts and Homes for Children.
But integrating Levi into the family proved so challenging they wondered if they had made a mistake.
The Kingsleys flew to Beijing in mid-December and eventually took a three-hour plane trip to southern China.
“We were so elated when the day finally came to meet Levi,” Gretchen said. “I had a backpack with a stuffed animal, a little book and some snacks. I wish I could tell you how perfect the moment was, but it was really broken.”
Levi had lived in an orphanage and with a foster family before returning to the orphanage.
The morning he met his new parents, Levi was into everything.
“He was throwing things and full of more energy than we thought we knew how to handle,” Gretchen said. “We thought we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.”
Aaron and Gretchen were terrified.
On the family’s first night together, Levi wanted to unlock the hotel door and run.
“He was trying in every way to balance his unbalanced world,” Gretchen said. “He was a child who had been through an unthinkable amount of trauma.”
The couple wondered again if they were up to the challenge. They were on the verge of crying. They couldn’t imagine a time when everything would be OK.
But they had unflappable faith.
“In the back of our minds, we knew this was God’s plan,” Gretchen said. “We had to push through and persevere. We had to take it one day, sometimes one hour, at a time.”
She took Levi into the bathroom for a bath.
“There was water everywhere,” Gretchen said. “I think he was testing the boundaries. He was so uncertain about what to do and expressing the only way he knew how. I got him out of the bathtub, and he smacked me across the face and giggled.”
Gretchen just sat there and stared at him. She knew the last thing she should do is react.
Fortunately, the couple brought their 10-year-old son, Nolan, with them.
Nolan responded to the situation through the eyes of a child.
“He just saw Levi as a kid who needed a brother,” Gretchen said. “I think that was our saving grace. Nolan was someone to play with Levi. He helped out more than we imagined.”
That night, Levi fell asleep wearing the pajamas his new parents brought and holding Nolan’s hand.
The family spent two weeks in Fujian Province, where they walked in a public park with a lake.
At one point, Levi swooped Gretchen’s glasses off her face and tossed them in the water.
“We joke that he wanted to leave a part of his mom in China,” Gretchen said.
She never wants to go back to the fragile moments she experienced during those first few weeks with Levi.
“Maybe I’m being too raw, but I don’t want to tell a false story,” Gretchen said. “As mothers, we work and love and put our full selves into everything we do. We just pray that in the end, there will be a beautiful picture to all of it, even if we drive ourselves into the ground.”
Gretchen is a fifth-grade teacher in the Milton School District, and Aaron is chief electrical metering technician for Alliant Energy.
Some days are still hard, but Gretchen sees positive change in Levi.
“Transitions with adoptive kids with special needs can be really tough,” she said. “This is hard work for us, but we see so much growth in four months.”
After coming home to Janesville in late December, Levi started kindergarten in the Milton School District, where he is receiving different services.
Levi uses sign language because he is still learning English and developing his speech skills. He has learned 100 signs since coming to Janesville.
Like other children, Levi is learning virtually, but it is hard for him to be stuck inside behind a screen.
The boy loves being outdoors with his siblings, including Natalie, 12, the Kingsleys’ other biological child.
Not surprisingly, Gretchen has difficult days balancing the needs of all five of her children.
“The hardest part about being a mom is that we are on a teeter-totter all the time trying to balance everything,” she said. “We have to pick and choose wisely because we can’t have it all. My No. 1 priority is my children.”
Gretchen and Aaron knew that adopting Levi would be challenging for the whole family.
“It is important for our children to grow up with the understanding that not everything is easy,” Gretchen said. “And not everything is about them. Mom and Dad’s love doesn’t end just because we bring another child into the family, and it doesn’t mean that we love any of them less.”
She believes her children grow in grace and acceptance of one another’s differences.
She praised all of them for creating a united family.
“There are hundreds of thousands of orphan children with special needs,” Gretchen said. “If we don’t step up and do these hard things, they will be institutionalized for the rest of their lives with no hope of love or someone to cheer them on.”
From the first time she saw Levi’s photo, she was inspired to bring him into her family. She had a brother with special needs who died.
“He made me a huge part of what I am today,” Gretchen said.
She realizes she has a lot on her shoulders. But she said her husband and children pitch in to give her a break.
“As mothers, we all could probably do a better job of taking care of ourselves,” Gretchen said.
Aaron admires his wife’s spirit and stamina.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, Gretchen is a 20 as a mom,” Aaron said. “She is the glue that binds our family. She is unselfish, caring and has enough patience for all of us.
“She is our rock.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.
The music is always “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Someone usually quotes Dr. Seuss in his or her speech.
And someone’s family members always whoop and clap wildly when their graduate’s name is called—despite being told to hold their applause until the end.
This year’s graduations might include those traditional elements, but nothing else will be the same. Due to the ongoing pandemic, high schools have had to come up with new ways to honor this educational milestone.
In April, Gov. Tony Evers extended his “safer-at-home” order through May 26. At that time, he also closed schools through the end of the year. That date is June 30, and under those rules, even outdoor events are prohibited on school grounds.
So what’s a district to do?
In Janesville, the high schools asked seniors and their parents to provide the answer.
A survey was sent out, and students and parents were given four options. The results showed:
Of the 1,057 people who responded, 53.6% were parents and 46.4% were students.
The majority, or about 56%, were Craig High School parents and students. Another 37% were Parker High School parents and students, and the remainder attended one of the district’s four charter schools.
District Public Information Officer Patrick Gasper said the administration was reviewing the survey results and would soon be making a decision on the matter.
What would a virtual graduation look like? It depends on who’s in charge.
Beloit Turner High School has joined four other high schools to hire Herff Jones to manage ceremonies, said Turner Principal Christopher Koeppen. The company specializes in “educational recognition and achievement products” such as caps and gowns, class rings and yearbooks.”
For virtual graduations, the company partners with StageClip and Marching Order—companies that specialize in compiling video and other elements to create social media-ready clips.
Koeppen said virtual graduation ceremonies will feature all of the traditional elements such as the procession, the welcome by the senior class president, speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian, music and even the requisite video of inspiring and/or embarrassing senior class moments.
The virtual procession includes images of students in their caps and gowns, and a voice actor will announce each of their names. Each of these short clips will be combined to run in succession, and all speeches and music will be prerecorded.
As students cross the stage in a traditional graduation, they flip the tassels on their mortarboards from one side to the other, representing their transition from student to graduate. For the virtual graduation, each student will prerecord the act of moving the tassel and include a short message for their families. Again, those moments will be combined to run in succession.
Finally, the company assembles what it refers to as “B-roll” video of highlights from the school year.
The event will be live-streamed. Afterward, each student will receive a personalized version of the ceremony which he or she can share on social media and a larger file containing the entire ceremony.
Beloit Turner has about 106 students graduating this year, and the cost for the event is $1,500. It would have cost significantly more if the school had not partnered with other south-central Wisconsin schools, Koeppen said.
It’s important to get this graduation right, especially this year, Koeppen said.
“It’s a rite of passage. It’s a celebration that families and students look forward to,” he said. “Our seniors have been impacted by the loss of a number of events and activities that they anticipated being a part of.”
In Elkhorn, the high school surveyed its students, and about 64% wanted the graduation ceremonies to be delayed until August, said Elkhorn High School Principal Chris Trotter. Another 25 percent wanted some type of hybrid ceremony, and the remainder wanted the entire ceremony to be virtual. Planning for the ceremony will start later this summer.
In Evansville, high school students will have a virtual graduation similar to the one planned at Turner High School. If safer-at-home restrictions are lifted May 26, the school might pursue other forms of community celebration, such as a car parade, Evansville High School Principal Jason Knott wrote in an email to The Gazette.
Like Koeppen, Knott stressed the necessity of making sure seniors are honored properly at a time of such uncertainty.
“These ceremonies and other forms of recognition help graduates and their families begin the process of moving on to the next stage of their lives—whatever that may be,” Knott wrote in his email. “Graduation is an important milestone for our students and is one of those significant events in our lives that signifies the path to adulthood.”
During the weeks Luke’s Deli was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Karrels temporarily laid off all the diner’s 17 employees.
The sandwich and ice cream eatery on Milton Avenue is not set up as a drive-thru, and the owners opted to close for weeks over concerns about employees working in close quarters in the kitchen during the pandemic.
Just how deeply the coronavirus pandemic has gouged the local employment base and how long the economic pain will continue are anyone’s guess.
Some national analysts predict the unemployment rate in Janesville eventually could top 26%.
That would rival joblessness not seen here since the Great Depression, a decade-long downturn nearly a century ago.
Luke’s reopened last week to carry-out customers after they reworked the diner’s interior and moved kitchen equipment that for years had blocked a walk-up window designed for customer carryout.
Luke’s has called back all 17 employees and scheduled them for work. Karrels said the eatery now is ready to try to recover in a new, COVID-19 frontier that features all its employees—and many customers—wearing face masks.
“We’re going to survive, I think. We’re setting ourselves up to survive, that’s what we hope. But we know some restaurants in town probably won’t ever reopen. The people who worked at those places will still be laid off. They won’t be back to work.”
Much of the economic fallout of the pandemic began to set in during April, but state data on the unemployment rate in individual Wisconsin counties won’t be available until later this month.
State data available now shows that weekly unemployment claims in Rock County topped 8,400 last month.
That’s up from a trend early this year of about 1,000 weekly unemployment claims. Statewide, jobless claims since the start of the pandemic now total more than 500,000.
Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price said the current picture means at least 10.4% of the Janesville workforce has become jobless in a tidal wave of layoffs, furloughs and forced temporary shutdowns.
A line graph of the rise in recent jobless claims in Rock County looks like the up slope of a mountain with a domed top. What the back slope of that mountain might look like, of course, isn’t yet visible.
Price called the numbers “painful,” and “not at all pretty” to look at.
State estimates showed about 16% of Wisconsin’s workforce has filed for unemployment.
That’s up from a statewide unemployment rate of about 3.5% early in the year.
COVID-19 and the state’s shutdown response peeled off much of the gains in jobs added locally in the decade coming out of the Great Recession.
That’s similar to the picture across much of the nation.
COVID-19 continues, and it’s not clear when some business sectors hit hardest might begin to recover.
In Janesville, unemployment last rose to current levels during the Great Recession, after General Motors shuttered its Janesville plant in 2009 and brought on a quick exodus of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
Price said it’s hard to tell looking at raw numbers, but he believes based on the number of local mom-and-pop retailers and cottage industries forced to temporarily shutter during the pandemic that self-employed workers likely are a sizeable driver in the latest available unemployment data.
That’s significant, Price explained, because in the past self-employed people often went uncounted or under-counted. The counts largely gauge people who have applied for unemployment benefits. The pandemic is the first time self-employed people have been eligible for unemployment benefits.
“You’ve got a whole sector of the workforce in a society that typically has never been accounted for (in unemployment counts).” It’s great they are, but it just makes the numbers look that much more painful,” Price said.
National market analyst MoneyGeek released a study this month that predicts the COVID-19 pandemic could ultimately bring unemployment rates as high as 26% to Rock County. That’s equivalent to 22,100 unemployed workers.
MoneyGeek analyst Doug Milnes said that prediction is based on recent unemployment predictions by the Federal Reserve his firm applied to the individual job markets in local economies.
He said federal workforce data show Janesville has a comparatively high number of leisure and retail jobs and manufacturing jobs, which his firm thinks might be slower to emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown.
Price hasn’t seen evidence of major layoffs at local manufacturers. He pointed out that some manufacturers have pivoted toward production of needed equipment to battle COVID-19. He expects a few local manufacturers that supply equipment to the mostly idled auto industry could see a slow recovery.
Milnes said his firm sees evidence that in some regions of the U.S., COVID-19’s impact could have a ripple effect that hasn’t shown up yet. That’s in part because in some parts of the economy, unemployment payouts and emergency loans to small businesses have blunted economic fallout.
But Milnes said if the pandemic continues to hamper some parts of the U.S. late into this year, a ripple effect could manifest across the entire U.S. economy, not just in statewide economies.
“In New Jersey, we saw a real estate technology startup doing mass layoffs last week because they decided that nationally real estate isn’t going to come back right away. They’d been holding off for the last couple of weeks to see if things would snap back.My personal take is we’re going to start to see a bunch of layoffs in the next couple of weeks that are coming from parts of the economy that are not the first in line to emerge from stay-at-home orders,” Milnes said.
Price said it’s still difficult to take stock of which industries are impacted the most by COVID-19, although there are glaring signs that the local restaurant and retail industries, which employ more than 10,000 people in Rock County, have been among those hurt the most so far.
Raw unemployment data, Price said, doesn’t account for the financial pain some companies are feeling, even those in the retail sector that have continued to operate. Price said he’s spoken with some small businesses such as hairdressers who’ve shared with him their new plans to sanitize their workspaces and deal differently with customer traffic once the state begins to lift COVID-19 restrictions.
At Luke’s Deli, Karrels said, government rescue loans helped bridge the weeks the diner was shut down. But he said few customers want to come inside the restaurant to make orders. Most pick up at the window, and restaurants still don’t have the all-clear to reopen outdoor seating.
Karrels said in the months ahead, restaurant dining will involve plastic barriers between tables and a lot of distance between diners. He’s not sure how customers will respond.
And it all comes at a cost, Price said.
“Even though some are fortunate to remain open, they’ve had a higher cost of doing business right now because of all the things they have to do to protect their associates and the customers,” Price said. “There’s going to be long-term implications of those costs.”
Wayne Howard Biessman
Sarah “Sorca” Boran
Robert E. Hoge
Diana Sue Norder
Harry J. O’Leary
Nancy J. Peterson
Edward J. Schwellenbach
Lenore M. Strommen