Click HERE to watch a portion of her interview.
Duana Bremer has been the Director of Social Services for Polk, Burnett, and St. Croix counties for the last 7 years. She left a more lucrative career in sales and marketing, in order to serve the neediest people in our communities. She tells us that her job will become more challenging with the cuts coming at the state level. She worries that it will be more difficult for the most vulnerable people to find the help they need or that the poorest children will not have their nutritional needs met with the 10% cuts to the school food programs . Duana looks at her job the way that our elected leaders should, she wants to serve and “learn from” the people she helps. The best way she can serve them now is by speaking for them, as Wisconsin finds itself at a crossroads.
Here’s her story…and theirs.
We help community members with whatever the need is. We help with eviction, rent, utility, and transportation assistance; we provide shelter. We have the shelter in Somerset (Grace Place) that houses single individuals and families. In Balsam Lake (Serenity Home) we house single people who need shelter. Both of our facilities are full, right now, with a waiting list. But we did allow one gentleman to sleep on the couch last night because he had been sleeping in a garage in this heat. So, we thought it was prudent to allow (him to do) that…you know, what are you going to do?
[The homeless children in Bremer’s programs tend to be 1.5 years behind in school. She has formed a partnership with retired teachers from the area, who for years have volunteered their time and talents to teach the children in shelters.]
Part of the problem is that single people don’t qualify for any state aid, and we can’t meet all of their needs. For instance, BadgerCare is full with a waiting list, and there is no more state funding for that. So, these folks don’t even have insurance. A lot of the people that are here have been so sick, for so long, that they’ve lost everything.
Additionally, I would say that 98% of the people we work with have some sort of mental health issue. If you are single without insurance, you have no way to get medication. Then, you crash and it costs us more money, and we end up institutionalizing them. So, it actually costs us more money not providing them the medicine. And I have to say, every single individual that is residing at our facility that is on medication – they are working. They are able to be productive citizens. And we’ve been told that the mental health budget will be cut next year (shaking head).
Most people are on public services for less than 6 months – and they are back on their feet. Of course there are a very few people that take advantage. But in WI, there is no free welfare. If you are receiving assistance, you have requirements to work and move forward with your life. There is no state funding for people to lounge on their couch, watch TV and eat bon-bons. Approximately 85% of families that walk into a food shelter has at least one working member of that family. But in St. Croix County– the sustainable wage for a family is about $24/hour (one person, or a combined total). So quite frankly, if you work in St. Croix County – you really can’t afford to live in St. Croix County. It is very very difficult.
When discussing the Budget Repair Bill, a lot of the media is focusing on the collective bargaining issue. What should people in District 10 know about how this bill will affect your programming?
In my opinion with the Budget Repair Bill, the biggest effect will be on the agencies that support these individuals. For instance, I am part of a COC (Continuum of Care) for the homeless, and we write a grant together for 6 counties: Pierce, St. Croix, Polk, Barron, Dunn, and Pepin. [Bremer only receives $100,000 in state aid, and operates mainly on private donations]. When we got the funding back, we were told that the state funded only 3 of the 15 agencies. Thankfully, my program was funded, but I worry about the other programs.
For instance, CRA (Community Referral Agency) in Milltown is a domestic abuse shelter that is not being funded. Turning Point domestic abuse shelter in River Falls is also not being funded. It is going to be difficult, but I’m pretty sure that they are going to still be there. But is it going to be harder for them? Absolutely. Does that mean that they will have to get more volunteers and less paid staff? Absolutely.
Also, another thing that could be impacted is what we call the “Happy Kids Backpack Program” started 3 years ago. Before this program, my big worry was that these kids are getting free and reduced lunch and breakfast Monday through Friday – but what do they do on the weekends? Before the backpack program they come to school – they are agitated, they are hungry, they are disrupting the rest of the class, they aren’t learning anything, it is difficult for the teachers… Should the kids come to school hungry after the weekend? Well no, of course not. So, every Friday we pack 720 backpacks ($7/piece) for the weekend, so children who would be otherwise hungry, can have food for those two days. The backpacks have something for breakfast and then some sort of meal, like maybe pasta and some spaghetti sauce, or whatever…so it’s not a huge amount of food.
What was so frustrating to me, and how the budget cuts affect our programming, is that we are working so hard to get food to these kids on the weekends…and then the state is cutting the school breakfast program by 10%? I’m not sure how the schools will deal with that.
[Happy Kids Backpack program serves 9 school districts in D-10, adding 1-2 more school districts each year. To accomodate the demand, DPI requested $795,000 additional funds. Instead, they will recieve $695,000 less next year.]
Would it be fair to say that the biggest impact for you with the Budget Repair Bill will be in the cooperative partnership that you have with the school districts in making sure that our kids are well fed?
I think that would be very fair. With the cuts moving forward on the school districts – that is definitely going to impact us. We are probably going to see kids coming to school hungry. Those children count on those food sources. If the kids are hungry, they are not going to be ready to learn. Hunger definitely affects learning. And the class sizes are going to be bigger, so that is a double whammy because the kids are going to be more agitated, and the teachers are going to have to do even more work.
Before we had the backpack program, one story came from a custodian in the Amery school district. He said that the kids would come in on Monday and they would be so hungry that they would just pile food on their plates, because they had not eaten all weekend. And they were only supposed to take one breakfast, but they couldn’t help it. But since we started providing the backpack program – that just hasn’t happened, because they are now getting food on the weekends. So, you can just imagine what the effects are going to be with whatever cuts happen to that breakfast program in the schools.
Another story was from a teacher in the Webster school district. She kept snacks and food in her room for kids to eat whenever they were hungry. She said that before the backpacks, on Fridays the kids would get real agitated and start asking how much food they could take home for the weekends. Once we started this backpack program – that stopped.
And now after the food programs, nurses are seeing less children in their office with hunger-related issues like stomach aches and that sort of thing…the children are coming to school and they are ready to learn because they are well fed, and also the children are happier.
Do I have an answer about how we will help the school districts subsidize after they lose this 10%? No, I don’t. And people say to me, “are you enabling the families?” Maybe. But I really don’t care. Because my thought is – these are kids! They can’t go out and get a job…they have no control over their circumstances. For them to have something to eat…is very important.
[According to June Paul of the Department of Public Instruction, a meal can not be simply reduced by 10%. “A meal costs what a meal costs” – if there isn’t enough money, meals may not be provided. Cap Times reports that currently 39% of Wisconsin children are in need of free or reduced food programs. However, many families in our D-10 have greater needs, and rival the percentages of inner city Milwaukee: 45% of Menomonie children utilize free/reduced, 55% in Unity, 75% in Siren, and Webster nearly doubles the state average with 77% of their children needing free/reduced food.]
I have contacted both of them. They have both seen our facilities. They are both very familiar with our programs. So, that is very positive. And I have to say that I have now gotten a response from both of them; however, it was not answers that I have wanted to hear.
Looking at the budget as a citizen – nobody is against a balanced budget. Everybody wants a balanced budget. But the issue I have is that it is just being balanced on the backs of the poor and the working people. If it was fair – that would be a great idea. And I do think that the poor in our community are looked at as disposable. They don’t have a voice. There is nobody out there advocating for them.
Well, this is the way that I look at it. In order for society to work in our best interests, government and non-profits (such as Bremer’s programs) have to collaborate together. I believe that government is there for all the people. They are there to protect the weakest link, and there to support the strongest link. What is good for one of us – should be good for all of us. And I, personally, have real issues with wealthy people dictating government. I’m a real believer that if you are wealthy – you have every right to purchase your fancy houses, your fancy boats, take your fancy vacations, purchase your fancy cars, things like that…but you shouldn’t have the right to buy democracy. And that’s what I feel is happening right now.
If people want to make a private donation to your program, whom would they contact?
Send a check to:
200 Polk County Plaza
Balsam Lake,WI 54810
We are accustomed to seeing hungry kids on TV in foreign parts of the world, but not in our own communities. At least not anymore. You see, step by step, starting with President Truman in 1946, we’ve been feeding American children with free or reduced lunch programs. Children were still hungry, so school districts responded by phasing a breakfast meal into their children’s diets. A vulnerable spot in this scenario left children hungry on weekends – giving light to Duana Bremer’s backpack program. When the state and a private organization worked together in our district, finally children were “ready to learn” and “happier” and getting enough food. But now as we debate our values in Wisconsin, we may decide to take a step back with Gov. Walker and Sen. Harsdorf’s Budget Repair Bill. The bill allows the state to withdraw food that our kids depend upon. Duana asks, “Do I have an answer about how we will help the school districts subsidize after they lose this 10%? No, I don’t.”
Let’s hope our elected officials do.