JANESVILLE

A Rock County program in the Fourth Ward is intended to help families and children at Wilson Elementary School better themselves and keep children from falling into crime.

Julie Fuelleman began working as a neighborhood specialist out of First Congregational Church last fall. She works with 10 to 12 families at a time.

“Our goal is to increase stability for families so they don’t get screened in for child protective services reports or are getting youth justice referrals. On a broader level, though, we’re focused on building the neighborhood’s potential and establishing connections for families with area groups, which strengthens our community,” said Penny Nevicosi, youth justice supervisor for Rock County.

Fuelleman helps families with simple issues such as getting furniture or giving rides to work/school, but she also helps with bigger needs such as obtaining a job, overcoming addiction, or applying for programming and government assistance.

She recently helped a mother who doesn’t speak fluent English find housing for her and her four children.

“So many of my clients can get overwhelmed, and they have no support system, so I fill that role and try to help them the way a family member would,” Fuelleman said. “It’s really about linking parents with resources for them and their kids.”

Families reach out when they need assistance, and parents have control over what services they receive. The school district can refer students or families to the program, too.

“It’s a very flexible process because we base it on what they need. They’re the drivers, and that’s the wonderful thing about it is we’re offering them support, intervention and resources before an emergency happens.

“Because when an emergency happens, that’s when they end up coming in through our child welfare or youth justice door, and our goal is to help increase stability and safety so that they don’t enter either of those ways,” Nevicosi said.

Nevicosi saw similar programs in Dane and La Crosse counties a few years ago but didn’t have the staff or resources to create one in Rock County. When money and space opened up in the human services department, it created the opportunity to reallocate money to the neighborhood specialist position.

Fuelleman is paid $48,000 annually.

The program works with Wilson Elementary School and the Janesville School District to help families. Kim Peerenboom, director of pupil services for the school district, served as principal at the school for seven years and also taught at the school before taking her current position.

She said Wilson Elementary had the most referrals to juvenile authorities among city schools, which is why the neighborhood specialist is focused on the school.

She said the program has allowed the school district to identify students and intervene before crimes or other incidents happen.

“I think we’re fortunate that the county is partnering with us and providing that resource for us,” she said.

Fuelleman meets once a month with the Rock County Safe Schools Coalition, made up of Assistant District Attorney Dan Niedfeldt, school resource officers and area school district leaders to talk about students of concern and ways to help them with resources such as the neighborhood specialist.

Fuelleman continues to work with families through the summer. Nevicosi said the program might be expanded.

Fuelleman soon will start working with families that live in the Fourth Ward and have children at St. Paul’s Lutheran School. She hopes the program eventually can be expanded to serve all families in the Fourth Ward.

There is no data to indicate whether the program is helping deter crime because it’s so new, Nevicosi said. But based on her experiences with families she serves, Fuelleman thinks the program is going well.

“I love, love, love meeting with the clients. No two families are alike, and I find that exciting. I get so much joy from them, and it’s very powerful that they trust me because these are people that have had horrible experiences in their lives,” she said.

“When I see them thriving, it is the most peaceful and amazing thing. To see them have a voice and self respect, it’s one of the most incredible, powerful things.”

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