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GIFTS Men's Shelter celebrates client Bernie's recovery from life on the streets

Today, Janesville resident Bernie Baldwin’s eyes are clear, a shocking pale blue.

That in itself is a huge change compared to seven years ago, when Baldwin’s eyes often appeared watery, bloodshot, his gaze bleary at best.

Baldwin, 63, a chronically homeless man who has struggled with alcohol addiction much of his adult life, says he has now been sober for 17 months. You can see so by the clarity in his bright eyes.

He remembers the day about two years ago when he got serious about putting down the bottle.

At the time, Baldwin was homeless and found himself alone in a dark parking lot behind a downtown Janesville church. He had just taken a bath in the ice cold water of a park fountain along the riverfront.

Baldwin knelt on the dirty, wet pavement, praying for something to change.

Shortly after that parking lot prayer, Baldwin said he learned that GIFTS Men’s Shelter, a Janesville homeless shelter and social service center where Baldwin stayed on and off for the last few years, planned to open a thrift store.

An employment opportunity

The secondhand GIFTS Thrift Store, at the former Black Bridge Bowl at 1141 Black Bridge Road, now has been open almost a year.

The thrift shop, which had a soft opening last fall during the height of the pandemic, is hosting a belated grand opening celebration Saturday to show the community what donations to its resale shop can accomplish.

GIFTS shelter residents who volunteer at the resale shop will be on hand to meet residents.

It was intended to provide revenue, work opportunities, socialization and continued healing to the dozens of homeless men who are clients at GIFTS.

“When I first got back in the GIFTS shelter, they’d already worked on the resale shop for months and months. It was ready to open, and I thought I knew that my future was going to be with this store,” Baldwin said. “Somehow, the lord said it was what I should do. The lord said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I got this.’ So, I got pointed in that right direction, and everybody’s been helping me since.”

Alongside about a dozen others, Baldwin works 40 hours a week at the retail shop. His gig—sorting through thousands of pieces of clothing, electronics, housewares and other curios donated to the nonprofit resale shop—keeps Baldwin, a former moving company employee, busy.

And he earns money working at the shop, too, through a subsidized state training program available for at-risk and homeless elderly residents.

Seven years ago

In 2014, Baldwin and another local man, John Panos, spent an afternoon showing a Gazette reporter what the doldrums of summer were like at the time for local homeless residents.

Baldwin and Panos spent the bulk of their day drifting around the streets of downtown Janesville, sharing a bottle of cheap vodka.

At the time, both Panos and Baldwin bemoaned their plight. GIFTS in 2014 had not yet begun operating year round, and another drop-in shelter in the city’s Fourth Ward, which served as a stopgap during the shelterless summertime, was closing its doors permanently. That left men like Baldwin nowhere to stay. Winter on the streets can spell cold, illness and even death.

But life on the streets in summertime often can bring another problem: prolific drinking of alcohol.

Baldwin said he still runs into some of the homeless men he lived alongside in and out of shelters over the last decade. He said he last heard Panos had returned to his native Chicago, but it’s been years since he’s seen his friend.

Since 2014, a lot has changed. For one, GIFTS has transformed from what once was a fall/winter men’s shelter that migrated to a different local church week to week. Now, the shelter runs 24 hours year round at a permanent location.

GIFTS’ new executive director, Maryann Raash, said in the short time she has been at the helm of GIFTS (she was hired this summer), she has found the stories of men such as Baldwin captivating.

Baldwin gives back to GIFTS

Baldwin now says he’s a member of a local church where he used to stay back when GIFTS traveled from church to church. He also helps GIFTS, a faith-based nonprofit, run its daily religious devotionals, and he is up at 5 a.m. every day to get the shelter’s coffee brewing.

The resale shop is run by a mix of GIFTS residents and volunteers. But anyone dropping off donated items at the rear loading dock at GIFTS Thrift Shop might recognize Bernie Baldwin’s ruddy face, his short gray hair and bright, electric-blue eyes.

Baldwin is at times quiet and shy, but those who get to know him say they’ve learned he has become driven late in life. That’s in part because he’s getting an opportunity to reinvent himself and his circumstances through GIFTS.

GIFTS over the last few years has been running a transitional living apartment for shelter clients who have reached a point in their recovery from homelessness that they can move toward independent living.

Raash said Baldwin’s caseworkers at GIFTS believe he’ll be a candidate for the agency’s transitional living program, which helps GIFTS clients start handling their own finances and other responsibilities.

As he bales up piles of unsold donated clothing for re-donation to a humanitarian clothing recycler, Baldwin said he thinks about the shot he’s got at independence. He thinks about some of the wasted years he’s had on the streets. While Baldwin said he’s not ashamed of his past, he’s set his sights on the future.

“It was my way to thank GIFTS for just giving me a place to stay. My gosh. Before, when I was failing, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see how big a thing it was to have a place to stay,” Baldwin said. “I’ve worked for months here, and I’ve felt good the whole time. I’m healthy, focused and I’m having a blast. I realized if you just move forward and don’t stress, it’s not a bad time at all.”

Raash said Baldwin recently had an illness that kept him hospitalized for several weeks. He kept telling visitors he wanted out of the hospital.

“He said, ‘I just want to go home.’ By ‘home,’ he meant GIFTS,” Raash said. “That touched all of us. We wanted him home, too. It wasn’t the same when he was gone.”

Janesville Craig’s Rya Arreazola returns a hit during a recent No. 2 singles match against Parker High School.

Obituaries and death notices for Oct. 15, 2021

Robert Allen “Bob” Bramer

Brad Cantwell

Patricia L. Guernsey

Joseph O. Henn

James E “Jim” Jacobson

Octave “Arch” Liesse

Gary M. Mani

Barbara G. Nightingale

Charlotte Marion “Mickey” Peterson

Jack Street

Richard “Rick” Swinconos

Sherlie J. Thorson

Shirley A. Topel

Richard J. “Dick” Vinz

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Federal judge finds ex-Mercyhealth VP Bortner guilty in $3-million kickback scheme


Authorities haven’t settled on how much former Mercyhealth marketing chief Barbara Bortner might have to pay back for her role in a $3 million kickback scheme she is accused of orchestrating with an Illinois vendor.

A federal judge in Madison on Thursday accepted Bortner’s guilty plea to charges of fraud and tax evasion in a five-year-long kickback scheme federal prosecutors say Bortner and Illinois marketing firm operator Ryan Weckerly coordinated to bilk Mercyhealth through overinflated billings for contracted marketing services.

Bortner, 57, won’t face sentencing until February, but on Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Conley’s decision in the U.S. Western District court was not a surprise.

The plea deal Bortner and her attorney agreed to with U.S. Attorney Aaron Wegner on Thursday was nearly identical to an initial plea deal Bortner and Weckerly signed Aug. 11, according to federal court documents.

Under the earlier deal, Bortner will be required to pay back $777,800 in taxes prosecutors said she evaded by “grossly underepresenting” her personal income during several years between winter 2015 and summer 2020.

That was the same period of time during which Bortner and Weckerly, the operator of Sycamore, Illinois-based health and wellness magazine Invironments, admitted to amassing $3.1 million of payments from Mercyhealth.

Both Bortner and Weckerly admitted they fraudulently inflated billings to Mercyhealth beyond the scope of contract marketing work Weckerly was providing Mercyhealth at the time, according to court documents.

Bortner, a 30-year employee and a longtime vice president of marketing for Mercyhealth, was found guilty Thursday of accepting the kickbacks, a crime prosecutors said surfaced out of an IRS audit of Bortner’s personal finances.

Thursday was Bortner’s first appearance in court after she and Weckerly formally agreed to plead guilty to charges of fraud and tax evasion on Sept. 1.

Mercyhealth officials said they fired Bortner and dissolved a contract arrangement with Weckerly in mid-August after top brass at Mercyhealth learned of the fraud and kickbacks.

As part of her plea, Bortner admitted her role in accepting kickback money from Weckerly in cash and in checks in a scheme that involved payments as big as $70,000 at one time, according to court documents.

Bortner also admitted to putting the money in a shell bank account she set up at a bank in Milton and acknowledged in court Thursday that she used the money for her own personal use.

Weckerly is expected to plead guilty to his role in fraud and tax evasion in the case today, according to a federal court schedule, but Bortner and Weckerly have yet to learn what amount they would have to repay Mercyhealth in restitution.

In an interview after the hearing Thursday, Wegner said there could be further court hearings to hash out the restitution amount Bortner will be compelled to pay.

In exchange for their guilty pleas, prosecutors have offered to “resolve” charges of wire fraud and tax evasion, provided both pay whatever restitution is ordered. Federal probation officials in the coming weeks will review the plea deals and the case and provide guidance in sentencing based on Bortner’s past history.

Conley on Thursday said he is inclined to uphold the federal prosecutors’ agreement to fines and restitution, although he won’t officially hand a sentence to Bortner until Feb. 17.

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Janesville School District superintendent discusses his retirement


Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal announced his retirement Wednesday, reasoning it’s “time to begin the transition into the next stage for me and my family.”

Pophal’s last day as superintendent will be June 30, 2022.

“The decision to retire has been a difficult one, honestly,” Pophal told The Gazette. “I think, like a lot of people in my generation, this isn’t just a career for me, it’s a lifestyle. I put everything I have into this 24/7, and it became a bit of my identity. I couldn’t have had a better place to culminate the 39-career career that I’ve had in public education. I’ve been blessed to have a high-functioning school board to work with me hand in hand.”

Pophal said he is grateful for his leadership team and the staff at all the schools who are “on the front lines.” He refers to the teachers as the heart and soul of the organization, as well as custodians, food service workers, maintenance workers and the district’s secretary.

Over the past 19 months, Pophal said he has had to make difficult decisions in response to the spread of COVID-19. But the struggle to stay ahead of the pandemic did not play into his decision to retire, he said.

“I’m not running away from anything. I am running toward something,” Pophal said. “While the last 19 months have been quite an unpredictable ride, those were just opportunities for leaders to rise up and to truly be leaders. I don’t want to say it’s ever easy to lead. It’s easier to lead when things are predictable than when things aren’t.”

For his next chapter, Pophal said he is looking forward to focusing on his family.

“I have elderly parents who are 90 and 86, who live in my home,” Pophal said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to support them to stay independent for as long as possible. And my two children—one lives in California and one lives in Florida. We look forward to being able to spend more time with them.”

Pophal said he intendeds to follow the advice of a retired friend who urged him not to make any big life decisions within the first six months of retirement.

“My wife and I are certainly looking forward to doing some traveling sooner than later,” Pophal said. “But more than anything, it’s about relationships with family, friends and finding other ways to continue to be woven into the fabric of a healthy, dynamic community.”

School board response

After working closely with Pophal for the past five years, members of the school board said they were sad to hear of his pending retirement.

“It was a surprise to me,” board member Kevin Murray said of Pophal’s retirement news. “I know that he gave 150% every day, all day. I couldn’t be more happy for him to make a decision that’s going to positively affect him and his family.”

Murray said Pophal “has been like a brother to me. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s somebody that I can go to for advice, and I will miss him personally.”

Board member Greg Ardrey said Pophal “has done an excellent job during his time as superintendent, as well as continuing to move the district in a positive direction.”

Ardrey said “the last year and a half has taken so much out of many of the leaders during the whole COVID situation. I guess, when you’re of that age and you can make that decision, it makes it a little easier.”

Board President Cathy Myers said she and Pophal talked about his decision to retire before he made it public.

“I gave him the space he needed to really think about what is in his best interest and make sure that he is taking his life in the direction that he wants to,” Myers said.

Superintendent search

The school board is already taking steps to find Pophal’s successor, which Myers said could take several months. Ardrey said he hoped a new superintendent could be selected by next January.

In the meantime, the board will consider the profile and skill set they would like the next superintendent to have.

“I’m speaking personally here about the things that I care about, but obviously we need people with great skills at managing ... a large district,” Myers said. “But I think our community and our board and our faculty and staff really want somebody that has great interpersonal and communication skills and a good vision for what we need to do to keep the district strong.”