Posts Tagged: non-profits

Puentes/Bridges

Building Cultural Bridges: How an area non-profit is helping Midwestern dairy farmers build relationships with their immigrant employees from Mexico.

BY MAGGIE SONNEK

As Mike and Kris Ingvalson pack their bags and prepare for a late-winter trip from the frigid Midwest to sunny Arizona, Mike isn’t worried about leaving his large dairy farm. He has seven workers who will make sure everything goes as planned.

“I have the best crew I’ve ever had working for me,” he says, speaking of his team of immigrant workers, all from one region in Mexico. “They take care of me. I never worry about the work getting done.”

The location of Zongolica in Mexico; Mike & Kris Ingvalson; Mike & Adrian

At left, Mike and Kris Ingvalson pose in a ‘Happy Birthday’ frame. Above, the photo and map pinpoint where Zongolica is located in Mexico, and what the region looks like. Below, Mike poses with Adrian.
Photos courtesy Puentes/Bridges.

In fact, it was just a year ago that he took a different trip – this time to that region in Mexico. He visited one of his former employees, Adrian, and Adrian’s family.

Mike and Kris own and run a second-generation dairy farm, Ingvalson Hilltop Farms, in the southeastern Minnesota town of Caledonia. They’re one of roughly 15 farms in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota involved in Puentes/Bridges, a nonprofit that organizes annual trips to Mexico to bridge the cultural gap between farmers and their immigrant employees. By allowing dairy farmers to meet the wives, parents, and children of their employees, connections between the two cultures are formed. This often results in employee longevity and productivity.

Puentes/Bridges is based out of Fountain City, Wisconsin, a small town perched on the Mississippi about 40 miles north of La Crosse. Puentes is the Spanish word for bridges, and, living up to its name, the non-profit is all about building cultural bridges.

Puentes/Bridges founder, Shaun Duvall, originally started the program in the late 1990s to help ease the language barrier between dairy farmers and their employees. At the time, she was a Spanish teacher in western Wisconsin. She is thrilled that the program has continued on, and transformed into one that’s not just closing the language gap, but building lasting relationships between farmers and employees.

“It’s not rocket science,” the now-retired teacher and former Puentes/Bridges director says. “These workers want what everyone else does: A decent wage for their work and a better life for their families.”

Before hiring employees, Mike handled most of the milking and farm chores by himself – until his three kids got involved with high school activities. He and Kris wanted to be present for each of their games and band concerts. Around that same time, he started milking three times a day.

“I knew how to work with cows, but I was a little scared to work with people,” he says with a chuckle. “But, I knew if I didn’t hire people to help me, I’d miss my kids growing up.”

Though his crew changes, Mike says every hire has exceeded his expectations. In fact, they’ve become like family, strengthened by the fact that all seven men live just yards away from the barn in a house owned by Mike.

Veracruz viewed from the van; dairy farmer Stan Linder; Adrian's house built for several families

At left, the mountainous region of Veracruz, as viewed from the 10-passenger van driven by Stan Linder, a dairy farmer from Stockholm, Wisconsin (pictured above middle). Stan was one of nine area folks who went on a trip to Mexico in January 2019. Above right, Adrian’s 4,000-square-feet house, built as a home for several families. Throughout the 10 years that Adrian worked for Mike Ingvalson, he deliberately and regularly sent money home to his family so they could build that house. Photos courtesy Puentes/Bridges.

So, when Mike and Kris had the opportunity to visit former employee Adrian, they jumped at the chance. When they arrived in the small town of Zongolica, in the southern, mountainous state of Veracruz, four hours east of Mexico City, Mike was stunned. Adrian’s 4,000-square-feet home, meant for several families, was gorgeous both inside and out, he says. The most impressive part? Throughout the 10 years that Adrian worked for Mike, he deliberately and regularly sent money home to his family so they could build that house.

But, what stuck with Mike more than the spacious, beautiful home, was a conversation he had with Adrian’s mother. “I pulled her aside and said, ‘How were you able to let your son leave when he was just a teenager? Weren’t you afraid?’ She told me that yes, she was scared, but she prayed that he would be safe and would connect to a good family.” Mike pauses. “I couldn’t believe the faith she had.”

Puentes/Bridges has allowed Mike to understand the lives and backgrounds of his employees –like Adrian – many of whom are undocumented and under the risk of detention, all for the pursuit for a better life.

Immigrant workers now make up an estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers in the U.S. According to a national survey of dairy farms*, eliminating the immigrant labor force would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows. Milk production would decrease by 48 billion pounds – as would the number of dairy farms. This would cause retail milk prices to increase by a whopping 90 percent.

Puentes/Bridges group trip to Mexico January 2019

This Puentes/Bridges group traveled to Mexico in January 2019 to visit families of individuals that have worked on dairy farms in the Driftless area. / Photo courtesy Puentes/Bridges

Mercedes Falk, the nonprofit’s current director, recently returned from a trip to Mexico in January 2019. She and eight others – dairy farmers, community members, and one journalist – made the multi-day trek through several villages of Veracruz, meeting families of immigrant workers back home in Wisconsin. Traveling in a 10-passenger van driven by Stan Linder, a dairy farmer from Stockholm, Wisconsin, the group enjoyed meals of tacos and tamales, hot coffee in homemade ceramic mugs, and authentic conversations about life in both Veracruz and the Midwest.

“Spending time with these families is the most important part of the trip,” Mercedes says. “It really helps farmers understand how their employees operate.”

Mercedes worked as a special education teacher in Milwaukee before moving to rural western Wisconsin to work on a farm.

“I became so fascinated with growing food. But, I was disturbed that I didn’t know anything about where it came from,” she says. Eventually, she left teaching and got involved in the local food scene in Milwaukee, working on a small farm and in a restaurant.

“When I moved to Fountain City, there was a huge learning curve,” she says. “But, I became more self-sufficient and confident navigating challenges and finding solutions.”

That’s when the opportunity to lead Puentes/Bridges came up. John Rosenow, another dairy farmer who’s on the nonprofit’s board, and former director Shaun suggested she think about stepping up to the challenge. Now, three years later, Mercedes balances her time visiting various dairy farms where she helps with interpreting needs between farmers and their employees.

Puentes/Bridges’ paradigm of fostering relationships fits so well with dairy farms, like Mike and Kris’ Ingvalson Hilltop Farm, because of their family-owned business models.

“We have found that our stories are not that different,” Mercedes said in a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio. “We share similar hopes and dreams. Once people get the chance to know someone who looks different from them, they’re not as hesitant to reach out because they realize there are many more similarities than they would have thought.”

As Mike plans to pass down the farm to the third generation – his daughter and son-in-law – he knows that with help from his employees, the legacy of hard work and integrity will continue.

As for Puentes/Bridges, the journeys to Mexico to meet families of employees will also go on.

“I hope we can continue nurturing these relationships,” Mercedes says. “We share a lot more than we think.”


Passionate about storytelling, Maggie has spent much of her career interviewing fascinating folks and telling their stories. When she’s not writing, she’s sipping an iced vanilla coffee or exploring the Driftless Region with her husband and three small kids.


Learn more about Puentes/Bridges:

www.puentesbridges.org

www.facebook.com/puentesbridges

www.wpr.org/tags/puentes-bridges

www.jsonline.com – “Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Build Bridges”

progressive.org – “The Houses that Milk Built”

*The Economic Impacts of Immigrant Labor on U.S. Dairy Farms

Center for North American Studies

Making La Crosse a Promise

BY SARA WALTERS
PHOTOS BY DAHLI DURLEY PHOTOGRAPHY (unless otherwise noted)

When it comes to revitalizing a neighborhood, a fresh coat of paint is a great start.

But what La Crosse Promise has done goes much deeper than the surface. The goal of the area non-profit is to economically transform La Crosse, Wisconsin, through a program available to families that build, buy, or renovate in select neighborhoods deemed challenged by poverty, crime, and low property values.

The “promise” is one dedicated to the participants’ future – more specifically, their education – in the form of a scholarship. “We are investing in these neighborhoods by investing in people,” says Brian Liesinger, Executive Director of La Crosse Promise.

Dependents or adult learners can use up to $25,000 each – with a $50,000 Promise household maximum – at 2 or 4-year accredited colleges.

For Lissa Carlson, a self-employed single mother of two, that was too good to pass up. “I make no secret that I did it for the money,” she says with a laugh. “$50,000 will go a long way for my kids.”

It was in October 2016 that Lissa and her sons moved into their “Promise Home,” as they’re called, in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood. Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn are the two neighborhoods currently being served by La Crosse Promise – they were identified as declining rapidly due to deteriorating property, pockets of poverty and an uptick in crime in a thorough community assessment conducted in 2010 by the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County.

Declining neighborhoods resulted in depressed housing values, which led to a greater tax burden for homeowners across the city. Coupled with nearly half the land in La Crosse being tax exempt due to higher education institutions and public marshland, many people became frustrated with tax rates and sought newer housing and lower rates in the suburbs. The exodus continued to fuel a cycle of decline in housing on the south side.

“After reading the community assessment report, leadership from the City, County, School District, and area businesses really came together to imagine a collaborative program that would have a rapid impact, and La Crosse Promise was born,” Brian says. “Each of those groups remains heavily involved and represented on our board. The three higher education institutions in La Crosse are represented as well. So collaboration is really in our DNA.”

So with the help of the Promise program – and a tight housing marketing – these neighborhoods are seeing revitalization. There are now five Promise Homes on Lissa’s block alone. Residents are also deciding to build in areas that were previously void of new construction. “In the 15 years prior to the launch of our neighborhood program, only two private individuals chose to build homes in these two neighborhoods. From our launch in the fall of 2015 until now, we have 13 new homes with Promise families living in them, plus seven more Promise-eligible homes being built,” Brian says. “New homes have meant new taxable value added to the city. And that ripples out to nearby homes as we see the depressed housing values start to rise in Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn, which improves not only other homeowners’ equity but again, raises the tax base.”


The beautification is obvious, and dramatic. “When we visit with the neighborhood associations and speak with long-standing members of the neighborhoods, they cannot believe the transformation in just a few short years,” Brian says. He attributes some of this to the “worst-to-best” approach that Promise takes, explaining that the dramatic transformation from a vacant lot or condemned home to a beautiful new build can be very inspiring.

Even more beneficial than the improved appearance is its impact on the use of the homes. “The ‘worst of the worst’ are homes known for significant criminal activity. We know of two Promise homes that were former magnets for crime – specifically drugs. One of those homes was occupied by an individual dealing drugs as late as October of 2017. That home has since been condemned and razed and has been replaced with a new home,” Brian says. “Homes like that remaining in the neighborhood come at a high social cost. The value in replacing them is beyond dollars.”

La Crosse Promise definitely isn’t all about new building, though, or losing the character of these historic neighborhoods. In fact, the program encourages projects that preserve external historic characteristics and are appropriate to the architectural features of the area.

Renovation programs were a good way to let people who already live in the neighborhood take advantage of La Crosse Promise’s scholarships and invest in their own home at the same time. An owner who invests more than $30,000 becomes eligible for $25,000 in scholarships. Investing more than $60,000 raises the eligibility to $50,000.

What other stipulations exist for Promise applicants?

• The family must live in that house for at least four years, and they must continue to live in La Crosse until the youngest child receiving a scholarship graduates from high school.

• The oldest student who can benefit from this opportunity would need to reside in the new home prior to the beginning of 9th grade.

• Each La Crosse Promise Family is permitted a maximum lifetime scholarship amount of $50,000 to be distributed among dependents however the family chooses, providing that no one student receives more than $25,000.

One of the hopes of La Crosse Promise is that there will be a mix of household and incomes that highlights neighborhood diversity

Lissa especially appreciates this aspect of the program. “La Crosse is an amazing community, but it is pretty homogenous,” she says. “I like being part of a neighborhood that looks a bit more like the rest of the world. I like that my kids have friends of a wider variety of backgrounds.”

Another hope is to increase enrollment in public schools. The convenient location of these neighborhoods within the city helps make this more likely.

“My youngest is able to walk to school,” Lissa says. Brian agrees that the proximity to schools has been a motivating factor for many Promise families. Plus the neighborhoods are close to some of the city’s largest employers as well as a downtown full of shopping and recreation.

And as far as the crime and unrest that many associate with these areas? Lissa has little to report. Her only small hang-up has been the occasional language barrier. Safety has not been a concern, she says.

Perhaps the biggest hope is that these conveniently-located homes with $50,000 educational stipends – funded entirely by generous donors – will motivate community-minded folks – like it did Lissa – to sign up and take a chance on La Crosse Promise. “No other community in the nation, as far as I know, is tackling neighborhood revitalization in this way – by attaching education incentives to homes. And doing it in a way that involves a deep and long-standing collaboration between the city, county, school district, and area businesses and nonprofits,” Brian says.

He believes strongly that the educational component – the investment in people – is a big part of the program’s success, and beautification is the added bonus. “At first glance,” he says, “our neighborhood program looks like just a housing program. When in reality, it is just as much an education program. The Promise families, some who have very young kids and some who have kids who will soon enter college, will have their lives transformed through education – an education the Promise scholarships will help fund.”

As an added component, La Crosse Promise also runs Future Centers, an educational advising program in Logan and Central High Schools. The centers have dedicated advisors to help students get career and college ready, along with technical support for things like student aid applications.

Together, Promise Homes and Future Centers are providing a comprehensive solution. The future is bright for the program, its participants, and the city. The people-first approach has been working. “What makes great neighborhoods are great neighbors,” Brian says. “We need more than just new homes. We need civically-engaged, education-minded people to strengthen the neighborhoods, and who plan to stay.”

The positive changes are felt by the entire city of La Crosse. Promise is about a year ahead of its original projections, and they hope to soon spread the love to other struggling neighborhoods, and support even more La Crosse residents. “Two key areas that often have the greatest impact on an individual’s success are housing and education,” Brian says. “The dollars they will be able to invest in their education will serve them for the rest of their lives. That is a return on investment you cannot beat.”


Sara Walters is a writer and mom of two. Her girls love the awesome playground at Poage Park.


Learn more about La Crosse Promise:
lacrossepromise.org

Watch for Walking Tours of Promise Neighborhoods by liking La Crosse Promise on Facebook:
www.facebook.com/lacrossepromise/