Kelly Ihrke climbed onto the stage of the Relay For Life opening ceremony with a large group of family and friends.
She told the audience, “I hope that if you ever get diagnosed with cancer that you have a large support group.” Ihrke was grateful to have so many friends and family who were around to support her while she battled cancer.
Ihrke, of Plainview, is the 2019 honorary chairwoman for Relay For Life. It’s an honor given each year to a community member who has battled cancer.
When Ihrke was asked if she wanted to become honorary chairwoman, she hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she could do it, since the position involves giving a speech at the start of the annual event.
“My friends said, ‘You kicked cancer’s butt,’” Ihrke said. “’You can talk in front of a few people.’”
Ihrke was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma her2-positive, a form of breast cancer, in September. A tumor was found during a mammogram screening. It was only the second time she had done the screen.
“It was the scariest day of my life,” Ihrke said.
After her diagnosis, Ihrke underwent 12 weekly treatments of chemotherapy, and in February she went in for surgery to remove whatever remained of the tumor.
Ihrke woke up from her surgery with excellent news, the chemotherapy had gotten rid of her tumor. She will now continue with radiation treatment until December.
This was not Ihrke’s first year at Relay for Life, but it was her first year attending as someone battling cancer.
“It means more to me this year,” Ihrke said.
Each year, Relay For Life raises money for the American Cancer Society. Friday’s event took place from 5 p.m. until midnight at Rochester Community and Technical College.
This year the goal is to raise $70,000, which is $2,000 more raised last year.
The money raised from the event will go towards American Cancer Society cancer research, providing free rides to treatment, and provide funds for Hope Lodge. Hope Lodge provides a free place to stay in Rochester while people receive cancer treatment.
One form of fundraising is to form teams who compete to raise the most money in the community. This year, there were 24 teams.
“It can get competitive,” said Elizabeth Harris, community development manager for the American Cancer Society.
The event also included a silent auction, which was expected to raise $10,000.
“Coming in to the event we had $36,000 already raised,” Harris said.
Many of the volunteers and participants start coming to the event because they or somebody they loved has been diagnosed with cancer.
“Just like everyone else, I have a personal connection,” Harris said. One of her grandparents had been diagnosed with melanoma.
Becky Waara, the chairwoman for Rely For Life, started coming to Relay For Life in 2001 to support one of her friends whose cousin was fighting brain cancer.
Many of Waara’s family members had been diagnosed with or died from cancer, but in 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer herself.
The event has always held a special place in her heart.
“I don’t like to be cliche, but it brings a whole community together to fight cancer,” Waara said.
Waara is especially touched by the luminaries that line the RCTC track. Each paper bag is lighted and represents a life taken by cancer, someone still fighting cancer, or someone who has survived cancer.
Waara got choked up just talking about it.
“It is heartwarming and heart wrenching,” Waara said.
Another special moment during the event is the balloons to heaven, which has now been changed to a butterfly releasing because of environmental concerns.
“I feel way too many people have been touched by cancer,” Waara said.
A variety of colored T-shirts can be seen, each color representing either a survivor, a caregiver or a participant.
Randy Low, was one of many survivors in attendance. Sixteen years ago, Randy became a cancer survivor after he received a liver transplant. He has been attending Relay For Life events ever since with his wife, Lora.
They both wanted to be able to give back and talk to other people who are battling cancer.
“He is a symbol of hope,” said Lora, “he was given a 1% chance of survival.”
Hanan Abdelgadir says she knows what it’s like to be out of sync with a child’s education needs.
“I myself am a mom of three,” the Olmsted County social worker said. “I did face so many bumps as a new immigrant raising my children in a completely different environment. We had so many challenges due to the lack of experience.”
By the time she moved from Iowa City to Rochester, her children had graduated and left home for college, but she found a way to use her experiences to help other parents.
When Olmsted County created the REACH program in 2016, she became one of two social workers assigned to help families of color with children age 5 and younger connect to educational opportunities.
“I feel I have a great passion in helping parents get connected and learn about resources,” she said, noting she works with parents who have relocated as immigrants, as well as parents who grew up in poverty and aren’t aware of available educational opportunities.
She said she knows making connections to educational programs can have long-lasting effects for parents and children.
“As a young mom, I struggled with so many things and connecting with my children,” she said.
She sees the same issues in the families she helps, but she’s also able to pass on the lessons she’s learned along the way.
‘THANK YOU FOR HELPING MY MOM’
Nada Abdelrahman said she’s benefited from Abdelgadir’s knowledge, noting the REACH program has helped her connect with her three children, 4-year-old Mohamed and 6-year-old twins Jodie and Joan.
It’s a change that hasn’t been lost on the children.
“Thank you for helping my mom to be a good mom,” Jodie wrote in a note Abdelgadir keeps at her desk.
The REACH program has supported 59 families since it was created, providing referrals to community resources and helping identify needs regarding early childhood education.
John Edmonds, Olmsted County’s supervisor of family support programs, said the program is considered successful in its goal to address disparities among families of color.
“The intent is to connect them into the educational system as soon as possible, because we know what that means in terms of future educational success,” he said.
The future of the program, however, is uncertain.
Grant funding for the program runs out this month, and Olmsted County isn’t eligible to re-apply.
Edmonds sought a different state grant to expand the program, but the opportunity was suddenly pulled back last week. It’s uncertain whether the funding could become available in the future.
Amy Shillabeer, Olmsted County’s child and family services director, said county staff is exploring options to maintain the program, since the work being done by the REACH program and other Olmsted County family-oriented programs is helping Olmsted County reduce disparities seen in other parts of the state.
A 2017 Minnesota Department of Human Services report indicates slightly more than half of the state’s children being placed outside their homes were children of color. Other reports have shown even higher rates, as much as three times as high, Shillabeer said.
“We are not seeing that higher rate of entry into foster care for children of color,” she added.
In 2016, 7.1 percent of white children served by Child Protective Services entered foster care, compared to 7.2 percent of non-white children.
The rates shifted for 2017, with 8.1 percent of white children being placed outside their home, but only 5.9 percent of children of color. Last year, the percentage for white children dropped to 7.2 percent and the percentage of non-white children was 6.9 percent.
‘IT CAN MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE’
Shillabeer said she believes efforts like the REACH program have contributed to those outcomes.
“It’s our opportunity to help families reduced barriers, reduce risks and increase protective factors before something bad happens,” she said. “So much of the system is aimed at responding after something has happened, so if we have the opportunity to get in there early, it can make a huge difference in the trajectory for the family.”
Edmonds notes that no families in the REACH program have seen a child removed from the home since it started.
He said he believes establishing lines of communication plays a big part in that result related to preventing kids from ending up in the deeper end of the child welfare system, as well as addressing disparity and disproportionality in the system.
Healing circles for mothers in the program provide an avenue to encourage communication and build community relationships. Participants share their concerns and struggles related to past traumas. Since all participants and the program’s social workers, Abdelgadir and Sara-Louise Henry, are people of color, they establish a unique bond, Edmonds said.
“They have the safety of being able to share that with people who at least understand or share that perspective,” he said. “In this community, I think that’s a very different experience and a positive experience for people.”
If the county finds a new funding source, Edmonds said, he wants to hire a health program assistant to provide added community outreach and expand the healing circles.
“Many of the women we’re working with and the families we’re working with have experienced trauma,” he said noting that trauma can come from physical assault or growing up in poverty and facing racism.
With the chance that program funding could end, Abdelgadir and Henry face a bit of uncertainty.
Olmsted County commissioners have agreed to maintain their positions through July, with hope of obtaining new state funding, but after that Abdelgadir and Henry could be looking for work.
Abdelgadir said while the unknown raises concerns about her employment, she’s also concerned for the families she has been helping.
Edmonds said families in the program will continue to be helped by other social workers, but new families will not be accepted into the program unless additional funding is secured.
Abdelgadir said efforts like the local Cradle to Career initiative show children of color are falling behind in educational outcomes and continue to need support.
“Black children are in a very bad situation,” she said. “Data shows they are at the bottom for education attainment, so to address this issue we need to focus on those children and why those children are struggling.”
Information on the Cradle to Career website shows 32 percent of black third-graders in the state were reading at the expected level last year, compared to 65 percent of their white peers.
Additionally, Abdelgadir said, children of color are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten unless they have access to early childhood education opportunities.
The lack of preparation can lead to a struggle that will only get worse.
“If children start struggling, mostly they are going to continue struggling,” she said.
Homeless people gathering in Rochester’s skyways became a focus of concern during the prolonged winter. Now, city officials are citing new troubles as the weather warms.
“We are seeing a little bit of concerning behavior in the skyways now of groups of young people — they are not kid kids, but they are still young,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton recently told members of the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission. “It makes me a little nervous. It appears they may be playing off each other, and I do worry there may be some illegal activity going on there.”
She said it appears the people involved could be from out of town, but the troubling activity has reportedly risen since March.
At the same time, Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin has made an effort to increase skyway patrols, concentrating on the morning and evening hours.
He said those patrols aim to keep the peace while also connecting homeless residents to services.
“In April, May and June, so far, we’ve had 280 contacts with people experiencing homelessness,” he told the city’s Police Policy Oversight Commission earlier this month. “Now, that’s not 280 arrests, that’s not 280 citations, that’s 280 contacts with people.”
However, Franklin did cite the need to address an increase in aggressive behavior in the public skyway system.
An option could be enacting a new ordinance to address concerns.
The Rochester City Council is slated to review three potential legal options on Monday. They are:
• An ordinance closing the skyways during specific hours of the night, either by posting signs or physically closing the skyway.
• An ordinance restricting sitting and sleeping in the skyway system.
• An ordinance restricting panhandling in the skyway or downtown area.
Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos said the options are designed to reduce the potential for illegal activity.
“The whole point of it would be to not target any particular group of people, but to target behaviors, which are the people hanging out there all day that are potentially targeting people walking through there,” he said. “Frankly, a lot of times they are targeting the homeless people. They are more likely to be victims than anyone else.”
Dan Fifield, who maintains contact with many of the community’s homeless residents, said he’s aware some have been targeted in the skyway.
“I know that’s happening,” said the founder of The Landing, which is seeking to create a shelter or gathering place for people with nowhere to turn.
While he knows people have threatened and stolen from homeless people in the skyways, Fifield said the proposed ordinances aren’t likely to curtail problems with homelessness.
“Something substantial needs to be done,” he said, noting that moving the problem isn’t a real solution.
Loos said options for anyone required to leave the skyways will likely be needed to withstand potential court challenges.
“We wouldn’t want to be throwing people out in the street during the winter, or anything like that,” he said.
Norton and Franklin also agreed that more needs to be done, which is why the push for a nightly warming center option continues.
“This city is in dire need of a shelter,” the police chief said, noting patrols and legal action can only be part of a larger solution to address safety in the skyway.
The council meets at 3:30 p.m. Monday in council chambers of the city-county Government Center.
A Rochester woman was charged Friday in Olmsted County District Court with third-degree murder after allegedly providing drugs to a man who died of an overdose.
Michelle Alyce Williams, 52, was arrested Thursday afternoon at the security checkpoint at the city-county Government Center, where she had arrived for a court appearance on a previous charge, said Lt. Mike Sadauskis, of the Rochester Police Department.
She was charged Friday in connection with the death of Matthew Joseph Klaus, 32, of Rochester, who was found dead in his apartment March 30. The medical examiner’s report determined that Klaus died of “acute heroin and fentanyl toxicity,” Sadauski said.
Judge Dennis Murphy set unconditional bail at $400,000 and conditional bail at $200,000. Conditions of release would include GPS monitoring, random searches of Williams’ person and property, and pre-trial supervision.
Williams’ next appearance in court will be July 3.
At the time of his death, it was reported that Klaus had been a police informant participating in a months-long investigation of local heroin sales.
Williams was arrested in April and charged with three counts of sale of narcotics. At that time, she reportedly told police she had given Klaus heroin at no cost on March 20 after having sold to him at least 100 times. She also told police at the time that she has been using drugs since she was 15 years old.
Sadauskis said authorities waited for the full autopsy report on Klaus before deciding to charge Williams with murder.
Klaus graduated from Century High School in 2004, earned an associate degree from Rochester Community & Technical College, and worked for Rochester City Lines.