Author Archives: James Fuller
When Ginny Gaspar was in middle school, there was a child living in her Lombard neighborhood who, to some, wasn’t supposed to be there.
It was the 1970s. People like this girl weren’t usually discussed, they were institutionalized. The parents of this neighbor girl, little Eileen, made a curious decision.
“They were going to keep their daughter home with them and raise her as part of the family,” Gaspar recalled. “She was their child.”
Eileen had Down syndrome. In the coming years, Gaspar watched Eileen thrive. Her successes were more than an accomplishment. They were an inspiration.
“Growing up with her and learning how she did things differently made me have this desire to become a teacher,” Gaspar said.
So she did. It started with spending time helping in a special needs classroom during her senior year of high school. After getting her general education teaching degree, she headed west with dreams of being a special-education teacher in the mountains of Montana. When she arrived, Montana schools were on strike. So she kept going until she hit Oregon.
Not certified to teach special education in that state, Gaspar settled into a role teaching all subjects at a private elementary school.
A call from home came three years later. Gaspar’s father had cancer, and he wasn’t going to beat it. She came home to Illinois and landed a job teaching at Thompson Middle School in St. Charles. As the Chicago Cubs celebrated their first World Series title in 108 years, Gaspar logged her 36th year of teaching math and social studies.
Abuzz with the prospects of a Cubs victory parade the following day, her sixth-grade class strutted into the room and self-selectively divided themselves among three work areas: red, yellow and green. It was time to divide some fractions.
Students at the green table believed they’d mastered the process. Yellow table students had a good feel for the invert-and-multiply technique, but they weren’t ready to proclaim green table mastery. Red table students needed a little extra time with Gaspar before next week’s test.
There was no shame on the faces of the students at the red table. Next week any one of them could find themselves at the green table when the class moved on to the next problem solving technique.
Admitting you needed more help would not result into permanent banishment the way many students were handled back when Gaspar was in school, or if you were born into special needs like her childhood neighbor Eileen.
“When we were in school, there was the Blue Birds and the Red Birds,” Gaspar said. “And you knew which one was which, and you didn’t want to be in the wrong one. That’s one of the big things that’s changed in education. Kids are not put into groups all of the time where there’s a stigma attached to being in one group or the other. I
“In this topic, maybe you did very well. But in a different topic, you didn’t do as well. So we’re going to move you around. And the kids are OK with it, much more so than the adults are sometimes.”
The poster on the wall behind the red table reads: “In this classroom, mistakes are expected, respected and inspected.”
“I try to build a culture where it’s OK to tell me you can’t do it,” Gaspar said. “I’d much rather you tell me that than try to fake your way through it and end up getting frustrated and crying at home. These kids are OK with the idea that I need to know how to do this. And a big part of that is knowing how to ask for help.”
Gaspar is not specifically a special-education teacher as she once dreamed. But there are students in this math class and Gaspar’s other classes who have unique learning challenges. They aren’t singled out in any noticeable way either. That integration is another big change Gaspar has witnessed and welcomed as the most senior teacher at Thompson Middle School.
“The other kids don’t even blink an eye about it,” Gaspar said. “There’s no, ‘It’s not fair,’ whining about someone getting treated differently. They understand that they have classmates that have different needs.”
On the most challenging days of reaching a student with special needs, or just a student who needs a little more time at the red table, Gaspar thinks back to the little girl on her block who could have been placed into an institution if born into most of the households on her street. Eileen could learn in her own way, and so can every other child she’s ever encountered.
“Eileen made me understand that kids with special needs have special needs, but they’re not different,” Gaspar said. “Some people’s brains are wired different. They have those constraints, but there’s still things they can learn and do. They have value to them.
“Today, everybody is educated, and we’re going to accept them into our schools. With a good teacher, there’s no one who can’t learn.”
Jenny Zhang had everything and nothing. Big house, luxury car, loving husband, two beautiful daughters — but no happiness.
“I still felt something was missing,” she said. “I was close to 40, but I still didn’t feel happy. And you wonder what is the purpose of life. You go to school, study real hard, try to get a good job, try to get all the fancy material things. Now I have it. So why do I feel not satisfied, not happy?”
Five years later, Zhang traveled from her home in China to chant and dance at a Naperville Hare Krishna temple that is as low-key as the faith itself has been of late.
“Nobody forced me to come here,” she said. “But when I look at the philosophy and the devotees, they are peaceful and happy. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
Zhang’s blue sari mixes with a swirl of bright colors and patterns others wear as she joins hands with fellow devotees. More striking is the broad the smile on her face.
On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the faith in America, longtime Hare Krishna devotees also are smiling. The faith, known for its orange soda-colored garments and famous chant, became a ubiquitous part of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A child sex abuse scandal in the late 1990s bankrupted about a dozen temples and depleted the ranks of devotees.
Now Naperville is home to one of only two Hare Krishna temples in Illinois. On a Sunday in late July, people chanting and dancing spill into every nook and cranny in the room.
About 5,000 people come to the McDowell Road temple to celebrate the most important holy days. Plans to build an expanded temple on the site await city approval.
The Hare Krishna faith is ready for a reincarnation into a higher level on the suburban scene.
Part of the success of the Naperville temple comes from bringing the faith to where its core believers are. Nearly all who attend the weekly Sunday communal feast have Southeast Asian roots. Naperville’s India Day Parade and Celebration last month drew more than 15,000 people.
Also contributing to new growth are the core of Hare Krishna beliefs. At a time where racial and religious identities are creating new wedges in society, the Hare Krishna belief in one God who is capable of many forms offers spirituality without taking sides.
“The understanding is God is one, and we call him Krishna,” said temple President Premananda Dasi. “Someone may call him our Father in heaven. Someone may call him Allah, Buddha. Those are just different names, different incarnations of the same God.”
Dasi said it is that belief in the soul that erases any valuation of exterior qualities.
“Whether I am a woman or an Indian or a black person or a white person, it is all external identification. That is my bodily conception of life. But our true conception should be that I am not this body; I am the spirit soul. So there is no judgment in our belief system because there is no reason for judgment.”
Another reason for renewed interest in the Hare Krishna faith stems from the growing popularity of three main tenets: yoga, vegetarianism and meditation.
Large portions of the faith’s key spiritual text, the Bhagavad-Gita (As It Is), call for the practice of yoga to bring a natural balance to the body and mind.
Every Sunday, the Naperville temple’s kitchen heats up with a communal, vegetarian holy meal that is first offered to Krishna, then shared with the congregation. There is no meat-eating. Devotees believe all animals have souls with developed senses of consciousness. Plants also have souls, but their consciousness is undeveloped. And most plants are not killed when only their fruits or leaves are eaten.
Hare Krishnas are sometimes referred to as practicing “The Kitchen Religion” because of the focal point of the weekly congregation meal.
Meditation, in the form of chanting, also is an everyday aspect of the faith. Devotees have a beaded necklace, like a rosary, with 108 beads representing the 108 Vedic or Hindu spiritual texts. At each bead, a devotee chants, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
“When you are chanting, the purpose is not peace of mind,” Dasi said. “The purpose is to ultimately reawaken the consciousness. I am not this body. Please help me remember I am a soul. I am part of God, and my duty is to serve you.”
No more scandal
Chandana Paul grew up in India worshipping Krishna, chanting occasionally but never getting much out of it. She became an information technology engineer, managing the offshore division of her employer and 150 people.
“I was always anxious,” she said. “I was always worrying and planning. I could barely sit down and do nothing because I always felt like I should be doing something.”
About a year ago, the Naperville resident sought a way to become more committed to her faith. She received beads and a message to chant every day. It didn’t have to be 16 rounds, a two-hour commitment for many devotees. Just chant. She began waking up half an hour early to start her day with meditation.
“That really got me committed,” Paul said. “The chanting is basically meditation. You are meditating with the holy name of Krishna. And we’ve been told that’s the one way of deliverance. I have a perspective now that I have limited control. I may go through difficult times, but there is something I’m going toward. That has made me more relaxed. I’m not worrying all the time that it’s all me, me, me.”
But it’s not all chanting, dancing and eating at the Naperville temple. The challenges moving forward with the faith are about increasing the diversity and continuing to repair the damage caused 20 years ago when leaders acknowledged the molestation and beating of numerous children at now-shuttered boarding schools.
Five of the leaders who took over for the faith’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, were also excommunicated or jailed in various investigations.
Temple President Dasi, a trained child protection officer, said every temple has a child protection team with mandatory training.
“The reason is you don’t want to go through all of that scandal again,” Dasi said. “And we’ve gone through the whole circus. It was a disgrace. We know that everywhere there are scandals. It is human weakness.
“But that is no excuse. That’s why you do proactive things. You cannot inflict pain on any human being and get away with it. No. That is totally against the teachings. But if you extend love, you can get love in return. That is the belief. That is the lifestyle. There is nothing better.”
In a small room with mirrors and railings more suited to ballet practice, Aurora’s Landa Midgley engages in a mental dance of her own. She has four rivals preventing her from becoming the Glen Ellyn-area spelling bee champ.
The final two spellers move on to the regional competition. But with her bright red “Straight Outta Denmark” sweater and tenacious grip on the microphone, it’s clear Midgley will not be content with second place.
It’s only a few rounds before the word “khaki” eliminates the first competitor. Then “tentacle” creates another spelling casualty. The next round, “thwart” creates a head-to-head battle between Midgley and Mike Burns of Gurnee.
Burns has his shot at glory when Midgley misspells “financier.” But he also bungles the word. It only takes one misplaced letter to become an also-ran. Then the moment comes. Burns trips up on “glutinous.” He puts an “A” where there should be an “I.” Midgley pounces. Audience applause and handshakes follow.
This is a scene fans of the Scripps National Spelling Bee know well. But there is no confetti for Midgley. No TV interviews. Her spelling bee title won’t be a selling point for college applications.
Midgley is 51 — just old enough to compete in the Illinois Senior Spelling Bee competitions, in which the state is divided into 13 regions. The top two spellers in each one compete at the Illinois State Fair next month for linguistic glory.
“We all use spell check, and they do not,” said Tracey Colagrossi, president of the sponsoring Association of Illinois Senior Centers association. “Depending on how competitive the people are, it can get pretty heated at these competitions. You’re not cliff diving, but there’s an adrenaline rush that comes with the amount of pressure you feel in these competitions while you’re spelling in front of a lot of people.”
Midgley loves that rush. She first learned about the senior bee when she was 45.
“I just couldn’t wait to get older,” Midgley said. “This is the road to Springfield. It’s Springfield or bust.”
She made it to Springfield in her first year competing. She just missed a spot on the podium. It only made her more hungry.
“It’s the competitor in me,” Midgley said. “I want to win. I feel like I’ve got to beat the rest of these old people down. When I blew that word ‘financier’ at this year’s local competition, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘OK, let’s pray that he messes it up, too.’ And then he did!”
Midgley loves words, but she doesn’t spend much time spelling. She absorbs words by being an avid reader. Sometimes that involves print books. More often, she consumes an audio book during her 90-minute commute to and from work.
“With an audio book, you don’t get spelling directly, but you get pronunciation,” Midgley said. “And that’s a big help for spelling. You can’t tell me it’s not. That’s like telling Helen Keller she wasn’t reading because she was getting the words into her head through touch.”
At regionals, Midgley has her target set on the man who beat her last year. He is the three-time local senior spelling bee champion from the St. Charles area.
“I suspect he is the type of person who reads the dictionary or something like that,” Midgley said. “I know he’s going to be there. When you talk to him, tell him, ‘Look out.'”
That man in Midgley’s crosshairs is John Wohlert. He’s 69.
Fun with words
Wohlert is the only winner in the history of the local bee in St. Charles. Midgley is right. He does read the dictionary.
“Words in the English language have such variety and come from such global sources,” Wohlert said. “When you look at the details in the dictionary and find their etymology, it just makes the use of words much more fun.”
Most days, Wohlert will spend at least 20 minutes thumbing through the dictionary. He’ll also spend part of an hour perusing common spelling bee word lists. He looks for words with spelling traps. Words like “ukulele” or “rigmarole” are fraught with peril. But even common words can be difficult when a microphone and a crowd are in front of you, Wohlert said.
“Think about the word ‘bouillabaisse,'” he said. “You may see it in a cookbook or restaurant menu many times. Try to spell it under pressure. See what happens.”
Mental fatigue is a major factor. Local competitions may involve only five or six spellers. At the state fair, there may be two hours of spelling before crowning a champion. That’s two hours of butterflies and mental pep talks.
“I can’t feel that I’m ever 100 percent prepared,” Wohlert said. “I just keep telling myself as I’m sitting there, ‘When it’s your turn to spell, don’t rush. Don’t be in a big hurry to get the turn over with. That’s when you’re going to get careless.'”
There is the sickness of uncertainty when a judge calls out a word that triggers doubt. Wohler’s worst moment came at the regional competition in 2014.
The judge called out “miscellanea.” Wohlert couldn’t remember if the word ended with “ea” or “ia.” He got it wrong.
“The only thing I can compare it to is when you’re trying to find your way, and you come to an intersection where you have to go left or right,” Wohlert said. “You go right. One more block in you get that feeling you should have went left.”
Wohlert made it to the state competition last year. It’s brought him celebrity in the halls of the Pottawatomie Community Center in St. Charles. But it’s the unique camaraderie of being surrounded by word lovers that keeps him coming back.
“It’s a spelling elite,” he said. “You know you’re going to see a lot of the same people at these events. As long as I can remain mentally sharp and continue to focus, I guess I would continue to participate. Once you get down there to Springfield, there really is no reason you couldn’t end up winning.”
But this isn’t Midgley’s year for a state championship. She was stumped by the word “verbiage” during her rematch with Wohlert at last month’s regional competition. Wohlert won that competition with the correct spelling of “cloisonné.”
Seeing no obstacles
The queen of Illinois’ senior spelling bee competitions is a native of Springfield. The 53-year-old woman is seeking her third straight title. She is the name every other participant knows and fears.
Her name is Lisa Barker. And for the past 11 years, she’s been a resident of the Mary Bryant Home for the Blind.
Barker isn’t blind. She can read print if it’s large enough. And she spends much of her time doing exactly that. Barker’s spring schedule sounds a lot like a spelling bee boot camp.
Spring is the lead-up to a different spelling bee competition for residents of supportive living facilities in Illinois. That competition provides sample lists of at least 300 words to study. Barker has participated in the competition for the past four years. She considers herself a master of several thousand common spelling bee words.
There’s also a group practice for spelling bee fans at the Mary Bryant Home every week. Barker loves spelling so much she leads a group of the most dedicated spellers at the home every week in a separate study session.
“Lisa and our residents spend hours and hours studying words,” said Misty Smith, the home’s activity director. “We try to keep them as active and competitive as possible. And I think that’s really helped Lisa’s preparation.”
Being visually impaired may fine-tune the ear for spelling. Sounding out letters is the most common approach to spelling an unfamiliar word. Barker’s success alone proves the results. But she is just one of four Mary Bryant residents going to the state-level competition for supportive living facilities next month.
“My worst fear is I am going to make a stupid mistake and miss a word I actually know for some reason,” Barker said.
As do all spelling bee contestants, Barker loves words. But unlike the contestants who are trying to prove something to themselves, she wants to prove something to everyone else.
“Just because we live here, and we’re older, doesn’t mean our brains have stopped,” Barker said. “I haven’t lost it yet. And I don’t plan on losing it for a long time.”
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell’s use of a county credit card to pay bills that were under further review sparked a county board outcry for more intense scrutiny of credit card use throughout the county. A Daily Herald review of county credit card usage in 2015 shows the coroner’s office may not be the prime target if reform is the true goal.
County employees logged nearly $638,000 in charges from Dec. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2015. Bills for November 2015, the final month of the county’s fiscal year, had not been processed at the time of this reporting. In those 11 months, employees in the county’s 24 departments swiped their cards more than 2,700 times.
Employees in the information technology department racked up twice as many charges as any other office. Many of those charges are difficult to detail.
Most of IT purchases made with county credit cards were made through Amazon.com. Department head Roger Fahnestock explained his employees simply find much better deals shopping online for computer equipment than in local stores.
The man in charge of examining the charges is Auditor Terry Hunt. County policy says there are only three types of credit card expenses explicitly prohibited: alcohol, tobacco and personal items.
That last category gets to be a little murky.
“When it comes for my review, it has to be for a public purpose,” Hunt said. “To that extent, because the electeds have that internal control ability, if they say it’s for a public purpose, I don’t have an option to say I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Russell has long maintained all the credit card purchases he made were for public purposes.
County board Chairman Chris Lauzen specifically chastised the charges because some of them included what he deemed personal promotional items. And all the charges were made while Russell’s office was over budget.
The county board has steered away from examining the promotional nature of the charges. In part, that may be because Russell cut a personal check for $5,771.73 to reimburse the county for those expenses.
It may also be because Russell wouldn’t be the only elected official they’d have to call onto the carpet. Hunt said the county’s public health department and sheriff’s office both have long histories of buying promotional items having to do with health promotion and crime prevention.
But even an office like Treasurer David Rickert’s has what Hunt deemed to be promotional pens because customers who come into the treasurer’s office use them to write checks.
In any other year, Russell’s promotional item purchases would almost certainly have gone unnoticed and approved, Hunt said. At least a couple of factors paved the way for more intense scrutiny.
First, the county board approved a resolution this year that said any county office is deemed to be over budget not just when it has spent more money than it was allowed. The resolution said an office is deemed over budget if and when it is projected to spend more money than allowed at any point in the budget year.
Once an office is projected to be over budget, Hunt has the authority to withhold the payment of bills for further review of what is and isn’t a mandated expense.
Russell, thanks to the shifting of some funds, actually ended 2015 with a small budget surplus. So what if he’d shifted that cash earlier and never been forecast to be over budget?
“The credit card charges would have gone through just like the other tens of thousands of charges every month,” Hunt said. “If he had been within his budget, it would have gone through for a normal payment. It wouldn’t have been flagged.”
Russell said it’s clear from those facts that attention on his credit card use was all to give him a political black eye with voters.
He said his credit card usage was “minimal compared to other departments, even those under the chairman’s direct authority.”
That’s a reference to the IT department, public health department and division of transportation — three of the five heaviest users of county credit cards.
Hunt said he’s put in place more stringent standards for making sure credit card purchases are legitimate.
For example, county rules reimburse employees for meals up to $59 a day. But that reimbursement is allowed only if the meals are part of business travel more than 50 miles from the government center.
If an employee is attending a conference that includes the price of meals in the registration, the employee can’t use a credit card to purchase meals while at that conference.
Hunt said he requires conference agendas and registration details to document what’s involved in any county travel. Meals purchased on travel days to and from conferences are not eligible for reimbursement, Hunt said.
Even with those standards in place, the numbers appear to show some charges slip through the cracks.
Employees logged more than $34,130 in purchases at restaurants or grocery stores in 2015. Several of the fast food locations with identifying store numbers are within the 50-mile cutoff for the use of food purchases related to travel. County employees logged nearly $165,000 in travel expenses on county credit cards in 2015.
All of those issues are possible topics for county board members to explore in 2016. Members of the finance committee have called for an overall reduction in the number of cards in circulation and a decrease in spending limits.
For as blessed as I am, I don’t donate enough of my time or money to charity.
I’m the guy who donates when asked at the register. I’ll spend money on a zoo or museum membership. When I (rarely) go to church, I’ll put money in the collection basket.
I know that’s not enough. When times got a little tough at home in my teenage years, I relied quite a bit on my local food pantry for nourishment. And there’s no bigger reminder of that than when I walk out of the grocery store and see a person jingling a bell next to a Salvation Army Red Kettle.
More often than not, I’ll rush past the kettle. I’ll nod at the holiday greeting of the bell ringer. And then I’ll let the music on my car’s radio wash away the guilt.
I don’t have cash. I don’t have the time. I have a wife and kids to spend that money on. Those are the excuses I tell myself. And there’s a voice inside me that tells me they aren’t very good.
So, this year, I decided to become that guy outside your grocery store or local mall. I’d do three 2-hour shifts ringing the bell throughout the suburbs. I figured I’d get two things: validation that I’m not the only one who dodges the kettle, and some semblance of penance for my lack of donations. Instead, I got something else.
My first bell-ringing experience was outside Carson’s at Yorktown Center in Lombard. I arrived about 10 minutes early to my shift. The red kettle awaited. A matching red apron and a handheld bell were tied to the support pole the kettle dangled from. I watched from a distance. Not a single person who walked by the kettle in that 10 minutes donated.
Then I put on the apron and a smile. I started ringing the bell and holding doors open for folks with a hearty, “Merry Christmas.” And the donations started pouring in.
That’s not to say everyone donated. During my two hours, 40 people out of 317 (about 13 percent) who walked by dropped cash in the kettle. I counted only people exiting the mall to avoid double counting.
I quickly learned how to tell if someone was going to donate.
If they were pausing before exiting the doors, they were almost certainly going to drop a few dollars in the bucket. Older folks and parents with children in tow were also much more likely to donate.
On the flip side, people who pulled out their cellphone upon seeing me never donated. If someone looked at me and moved to the exit door farthest away, the message was clear. I tried not to judge; I’m guilty of those same actions. But I could feel my self-judgment redoubling as I realized how futile my techniques for avoiding the kettle seemed to the actual ringer.
Other folks were just blatant about not giving. One lady walked right up to me to announce her plans.
“No singing, no money,” she said. I smiled. As she went into the mall I imprinted her face in my mind and waited. About 45 minutes later she emerged from the mall. I broke into an enthusiastic “Jingle Bells.” She joined in as she walked right past the kettle without donating.
The next day I spent two hours outside a Jewel-Osco in Arlington Heights. It was my first encounter with another bell ringer.
At one time in his life, Darren Moore was homeless. Now, he lives in Arlington Heights. And every year for the past five years he’s been a paid bell ringer for The Salvation Army. The faith-based charity hires bell ringers, mostly from their own clientele, to work sites that are hot spots for donations. That’s only necessary when there aren’t enough volunteers to man the posts.
In the Chicago area, about one out of every four bell ringers you see is paid for his or her efforts, according to Beverly Peterson, Fox Valley area director of development for the Salvation Army.
“Whether or not we use paid ringers just depends on how involved the local community is,” she said. “Most of the paid ringers are folks who can’t hold a job the rest of year. But for the six weeks of the Red Kettle campaign, we hire them to go out and be welcoming to people.”
Some communities, such as Crystal Lake and Rockford, are so involved with the Salvation Army that no, or almost no, paid ringers are needed.
I felt lucky to encounter Moore on my second day of bell ringing. He was a veteran of the Red Kettle Campaign. And he quickly schooled me on the tricks of the trade.
One is to bring some sort of mat to stand on. There’s no sitting down on the job. The cushion helps keep a smile on your face by avoiding tired feet.
Second, position yourself in a way that you catch some of the heat from the store when customers open the doors.
Next, if possible, use sleigh bells instead of the traditional hand clanger. The sleigh bells provide more of a jingle to your jangle and allow you to keep a holiday tune much easier.
Finally, don’t expect anything.
“My approach is that if I’m doing a good job, and I do what I’m supposed to do, I can’t worry about what happens,” Moore said. “Sometimes it depends on the customers. Sometimes it’s about the weather or time of day. But you can’t get overly or underly expectational about what you’ll get.
“I try to warm up to my customers when they are on their way into the store so they’ll remember I’m going to be here on the way out,” he continued. “But just because you say ‘Hello’ to them or ‘Merry Christmas,’ you can’t expect them to just empty their wallets.”
Point taken. Having done some true panhandling in his homeless days, Moore wasn’t judging anybody. I tried to follow his example. But I still kept count.
In two hours in Arlington Heights, I received 36 donations from 158 people (about 23 percent).
Day 3 brought me to the Blue Goose grocery store in St. Charles. Unlike Jewel-Osco, which is a major chain, permission to ring at this mom-and-pop store was negotiated locally. That seemed appropriate as all Red Kettle donations at every location throughout the country stay within the local community where the donation was received.
Everything I collected during my final stint would end up in the bank account of the St. Charles Tri-City Corps of The Salvation Army. In 2014, the branch served more than 7,700 people at its food pantry. That was more than the Elgin or Aurora branches.
That stat proved prophetic. In two hours, I collected 46 donations from 123 people, better than 37 percent. Either I was getting better at luring donors, or folks were just feeling more generous.
By the third day, I noticed I was smiling without thinking about it for most of the two hours. There was undeniably some sense of increased self-worth that came from ringing that bell to solicit money that would be used to help others.
In my teen years, I was much more active with my volunteer hours. Twenty years removed from that, I had forgotten how good it feels to give back. In the relative comfort I’d found as an adult with two jobs and a wife and kids, I’d lost proximity to what it meant to struggle but find someone or someplace that could help. Chatting with Darren Moore helped restore that.
I was not paid by The Salvation Army to be a bell ringer, but I was paid by the Daily Herald to report this story. So I decided one last thing as I put down my bell for the final time: My next paycheck will reflect my bell ringing efforts. I’m going to return to Yorktown Mall to donate my pay earned during my bell ringing.
And I might even sing “Jingle Bells” as I do it.
Stacey Schnaitman pushed herself as far back into the corner of her L-shaped couch as she could and stared at the little hallway that led to the master bedroom.
The couch of their Geneva home was her refuge anytime she had an argument with her husband, James. She’d slept there for the last three weeks and had finally reached the point where she’d had enough.
Her husband had at least 15 criminal convictions, including four domestic batteries and two violations of protection orders. Stacey felt terror every time he raised his voice. She was ready for a better life for her and her four children.
It would be neither easy nor cheap. The most affordable attorney cost $3,000.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” Schnaitman said. “It would take me forever to save that money up.”
That’s when an idea formed. She’d recently heard of a friend’s family using online crowdfunding to pay for a funeral. Through gofundme.com, a mix of friends and strangers donated money toward the expense.
Schnaitman was hesitant to air her dirty laundry, but she decided whatever grief could come would be worth the reward. She created her own page.
One month in, she’d collected $915 for her cause.
“I honestly thought I wasn’t going to get a single dollar,” Schnaitman said. “I mean, who am I to ask for someone to pay for my divorce? But now people have started sharing the link without me even asking.”
Schnaitman wasn’t the first person to turn to strangers on the Internet for help with her legal fees. With huge demand for free family law help and fewer attorneys willing to provide it, experts and at least one new company believe she’ll be far from the last.
In a criminal case, the law provides people with an attorney if they can’t afford one. That doesn’t happen in civil trials.
Divorce, child custody, unemployment claims, evictions and similar cases are a large part of the justice system’s backbone. In 2013, Illinois circuit court judges tackled nearly 688,000 civil cases; at the same time, more than 650,000 new civil cases were filed.
Local experts say only about one in six Illinois residents gets the help he or she seeks from the various free or low-cost legal services. More people than ever are flooding local courtrooms trying to represent themselves. They almost always lose.
There are two main resources for low-income residents to find legal assistance in the area.
Elgin-based Administer Justice, a faith-based nonprofit, provided help to nearly 4,000 clients last year. Only 7 percent of those clients received help from a lawyer in the actual courtroom.
Not all of them needed it. An amicable divorce, with no property or children involved, can be tackled with little to no legal coaching. But for anything more difficult, Executive Director Eric Nelson said, you really should have a lawyer.
“There really isn’t equal access to justice in many cases,” Nelson said. “If we’re saying represent yourself, be your own lawyer, that’s just not equal justice. We don’t say to people be your own doctor.”
One barrier to legal help is recognizing you need it. Studies show fewer than 25 percent of people with a civil case seek help from a lawyer.
Many people don’t know a landlord can’t just throw them onto the street at a moment’s notice. Or they don’t know they have the right to appeal a denial of unemployment benefits.
Much of the government-funded legal aid services require recipients to have incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s a little less than $30,000 a year for a family of four. For an individual, that’s an income of less than $15,000.
If you’re poor, but not that poor, it’s tough to have a lawyer by your side in a civil case because there’s virtually no aid available for those above the income limits.
Prairie State Legal Services is the second, and larger, legal aid provider for suburban residents. Executive Director Mike O’Connor said he knows the legal outcomes for the five out of six people who qualify for help but still can’t be paired with a courtroom lawyer are grim.
“All the how-to information is not going to take the place of an attorney,” O’Connor said. “The entire court system has been predicated on the idea that people are going to walk into a courtroom with a lawyer. But the number of times where one or both parties are pro se has just become staggering now. It’s bringing the court system to its knees.”
Oddly, having the other side show up without an attorney as well may represent the best chance someone without a lawyer has of winning a civil case, O’Connor said.
“Otherwise, if one guy knows the rules of the game, and you don’t, are you going to win? No.”
Cons of pro bono
Securing a lawyer who knows those rules to provide pro bono legal aid is increasingly difficult.
In 2014, 30,213 Illinois attorneys provided free services, according to a reportby the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. That number represents only one-third of all the lawyers in Illinois.
It was a 1.7 percent decrease in pro bono work compared to 2013. The number of hours of pro bono service provided by those lawyers also decreased by 3.2 percent in 2014, part of a 12.8 percent overall decrease since 2010.
A further difficulty, O’Connor said, is only about 10 percent of attorneys practice a form of law that requires them to regularly enter a courtroom. Legal expertise in Medicaid, evictions and foreclosures isn’t prevalent because people who need help in those areas generally can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
Many lawyers who have courtroom savvy simply can’t afford to give their services away, O’Connor said.
“What it means to be a lawyer is really changing,” he said. “Go back 50 years, and the lawyers and doctors were the wealthy people in any community. But that’s not necessarily true today because now there’s a glut of lawyers.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has taken some recent steps to ease all these difficulties. It has lowered the amount of schooling law students need before they can provide heavily supervised legal assistance. And it has undertaken a massive effort to standardize the most common legal forms, which are typically different in each of Illinois’ 102 counties.
Standardization will make how-to efforts, like the new Illinois Legal Aid Online website, more effective.
But now people needing legal help can turn to a new kind of website tailored to help them actually pay for a lawyer.
Social media justice
Chicago-based Funded Justice launched in December. The website uses online fundraising principles similar to GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
The unique angle is the site’s sole focus on people raising money for legal fees.
Chief Operating Officer Alan Savage said the idea for the site spawned from a group of lawyers who frequently saw prospective clients come in with good, winnable cases but no money to hire them.
“They realized those people weren’t going to have their day in court because the free resources are just inundated,” Savage said. “Those people weren’t going to have justice.”
Savage and his team work with the people launching their legal fee fundraising campaigns to spruce up the message so it tells a clear story that shows a need even strangers could support. Then the team combines the existing social media presence of the campaigner with its own resources to launch strategically timed appeals with enough reach to attain trending status on various social networks.
The company’s cut of the funds raised ranges from 5 percent to 8 percent, depending on whether it’s an all-or-nothing goal or a fund-as-you-go campaign.
“We are a resource for someone in a situation who has no other help,” Savage said. “We believe we are truly disrupting the justice process by using social media for social justice. The world would be a very different place if everyone had equal access to justice.”
That’s all Stacey Schnaitman wants. Her husband is innocent of the most recent criminal charges of felony domestic battery until proven guilty.
If he goes to prison, she’ll feel safe. No matter what, their marriage is over. And she doesn’t need to wait for the resolution of the criminal trial to get a divorce — if she can pay for it.
Deciding to leave was hard. She’s hoping following through on her decision doesn’t take as long.
“You’re so beaten down that you’re afraid to leave,” Schnaitman said.
“I want the good part of my life back. I know what I’m doing is the absolute best thing for my children and myself. It has to end.”
Second of two parts.
The search for Tom Karambelas had become desperate and frustrating.
After five months, it was clear Tom had problems to run from when he went missing in December 2011. His longtime girlfriend dumped him. He lost tens of thousands of dollars gambling. He wasn’t speaking to his only brother. And the IRS was after him.
Police checked the obvious places for clues. The home he shared with his girlfriend provided few leads. The business his car was parked at was checked — several times, according to police reports. Friends were questioned. Family members were interviewed. Phone, email and credit card records were traced. None of the threads led to Tom.
What made Tom’s brother, Bill Karambelas, antsy were the woods behind the South Elgin business where his brother’s car was found. There were large storm drains there that could contain anything or anyone.
Unsatisfied with the official search of the woods, Bill and several other family members searched again in late May 2012. Nothing. Local police and fire officials conducted a sonar search of a quarry in the area four months later. Again, nothing.
Hope dissolved into fear. It had been almost a year since Tom disappeared. He had not contacted any family members or known friends. Bill didn’t want his last contact with his brother to have been an argument.
“That fight is one of the biggest regrets of my life,” he said. “I wish I could take it back.”
Then came an odd twist in the case.
In November 2012, a college student named Kelly told police she saw Tom and had a short conversation with him at a public pool in Geneva during the summer. Even after two interviews, Kelly was 95 percent sure it was Tom.
Police even suggested to her during questioning that the man she saw was the new boyfriend of Tom’s longtime girlfriend, Susan Bacsa. Kelly stuck to her story. There were no other witnesses to corroborate it, but just the possibility that Tom was alive fueled hope for Tom’s father, Pete.
“That was a prolonged agony situation,” he said. “Basically, she says that she’s completely sure it was Tom.”
And yet, if he were in the area, why not reach out to someone, anyone?
What seemed to be a promising lead went nowhere after several weeks. Having contacted various federal officials and even exploring the possibility that Tom, who was adopted, went off to track down his birthparents, the trail grew cold.
In June 2013, Kane County detectives placed the case into inactive status.
Three months later, Tom was found in the most likely and unlikely of places.
Three workers at the warehouse were moving freezers when they found one unplugged and sealed. Knowing Tom had been missing, they opened the freezer and found the mummified remains of the 6-foot-tall, 210-pound man wearing a Cubs sweatshirt and black jogging pants.
Inside the freezer were two bottles of Coke, one partially consumed and one unopened; two bags of Fritos; an unopened chocolate cupcake; a blanket; a red and black plastic flashlight; some unreadable cards; and a toy that belonged to Tom’s dog.
South Elgin police arrived and determined the freezer was sealed from the inside with clear silicone and a bottle of expanding foam, which were also in the freezer. There was no evidence of attempted escape. An autopsy concluded Tom died from “confined space asphyxia” after sealing himself in the freezer.
Tom was found in the first place police looked and several people searched at least five times thereafter. The vending company operated out of the warehouse, business as usual, the entire time Tom was missing.
As crushing as Tom’s death was, Bill and Pete Karambelas were equally dumbfounded that Tom was in the warehouse the entire time.
“If his car’s parked outside here, the car keys are in here, they have video of a car going in and not coming out, there are some suicide notes, where is the first place you’re going to look?” Bill said. “How does everybody miss the same thing when they are being told exactly where to look? You didn’t miss the needle; you missed the haystack.”
Because of the confounding end to the search, both Bill and Pete now wonder if Tom wasn’t found because maybe he wasn’t there all along. Maybe he didn’t kill himself. Maybe someone shut him in the freezer and removed any traces of the sealant from the outside. Maybe the cooler with him inside wasn’t even in the warehouse when the searches occurred.
“Something is not adding up,” Bill Karambelas said. “I’m not pointing the finger. We just don’t understand how this all could have happened this way. You start to question everything and everyone. Things just don’t make sense.”
Bacsa wasn’t invited to Tom’s memorial. There is no communication between her and Tom’s family.
“In my opinion, they have a lot of guilt,” Bacsa said. “I don’t have any guilt. I’m not happy about how it ended, but I did so many things for him for so many years.”
When police told Bacsa Tom’s body was in the place she regularly worked, she broke down in tears, according to police reports.
“I could have sworn I checked in there,” was her immediate reaction, the reports show.
Knowing Tom’s body was there all along is a shudder she can’t shake.
“I never thought he was going to do this,” she said. “The way he did it, I think about it all the time. I worked in that warehouse for two years, me and my employees, and we didn’t know. All of us worked so close, within five feet of him. So many people missed it. Did the (South Elgin) Police Department screw up? In my opinion, yes, I think they did. Did the sheriff screw up? Yeah, they did.”
Asked how Tom Karambelas was never found in any of the police searches, officials point their fingers at each other.
“The only role we played on any of the searches was to assist county in a search at their direction,” South Elgin Police Chief Chris Merritt said in an email interview. He referred further questions about the searches to Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez.
Perez, in several interviews with the Daily Herald, said the warehouse is in South Elgin’s jurisdiction, and the responsibility for searching the facility was that town’s.
“This was South Elgin’s, and it should have been theirs from A to Z,” Perez said.
He dismissed any theories that don’t involve Tom committing suicide.
“There weren’t any indications that this guy was killed someplace and put there later,” Perez said. “And there’s no logic to that idea. He committed suicide. He sealed himself in a freezer with two sealants. He died within 5 to 10 minutes from the fumes. And the sad reality is, even if they found him on the first search, he still would have been dead.”
At 89 years old, Pete Karambelas has a stack of underlined police reports, emails and notes of conversations he had with various officers, Tom’s friends and family members. Even months after the discovery of his son’s body, he recently tried to reach out to Kelly, the girl who said she saw Tom at a Geneva pool, in hopes of coming to terms with what happened to his son.
In some ways, chasing those details and possibilities is a morbid comfort. It’s better than thinking about Tom killing himself in such a lonely manner.
“It’s tough to take,” Pete Karambelas said. “Why didn’t he come to me or his mom? Why didn’t he come to Bill? It hurts a lot. And it’s very unfortunate that Tommy was not found shortly after his disappearance.
“Had he been found at that time, the family would not have had to endure 20 months of suffering and agony, and, in addition, it would not have given us the false sense of hope that Tommy was still alive. We were put through hell.”
In the days before his disappearance, Tom Karambelas lost his girlfriend, his money and his way. But it wasn’t like he hadn’t skipped town before.
When he was 20, Karambelas was implicated in a burglary. He fled to Florida, and family members are unsure if he ever spent time behind bars. When he was 25, he pulled another disappearing act to Atlantic City.
Even as a 42-year-old man, it wasn’t unheard of him to spend several days in Las Vegas without telling many people where he was.
When he walked out the door of the St. Charles house he’d shared with Susan Bacsa for 17 years in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2011, she thought it was just another of Karambelas’ dramatic stunts. So did police.
As Karambelas left, he told Bacsa, “You will never see me again.” And this time, it seemed like he meant it.
He wouldn’t surface for more than 19 months. When he did turn up dead, how and where he was found created a new set of questions that have police agencies pointing fingers at each other and loved ones finding little solace at the answers they have received.
The Daily Herald reviewed dozens of pages of police reports and interviewed numerous family members, friends and police for this story. What emerges is a range of theories, suspicions and speculations about what happened during the 19 months Karambelas was a missing person. Police investigated many of those twists. There is only one truth. Yet for some loved ones, the theories bring a strange source of comfort beyond the official conclusion.
The relationship between Karambelas and Bacsa had been crumbling for more than a year. A few days before he disappeared, the pair ended their relationship. She had just returned from a trip to Florida where she began seeing another man.
Soon after, on Dec. 20, 2011, Karambelas lost $40,400 in about 75 minutes at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. It was neither the first nor the last time. A police investigation revealed nearly $158,000 in gambling losses in the five months preceding his disappearance.
He had money to lose, at least for a while. Karambelas was involved in an accident several years before his disappearance and reaped a settlement worth up to $1 million, according to his accountant. He had invested in properties in Wisconsin and Florida. And he helped run a South Elgin-based festival vending company with Bacsa.
The same day as the big gambling loss, Bacsa witnessed Karambelas writing numerous letters to family members. It was a process he’d started several days before. He sent a text to one friend that said he was fleeing the state to start over. He told another friend he was leaving for Montana.
On Dec. 21, 2011, after losing more money at the casino, Karambelas left messages with his parents saying he was driving to Florida with Susan. After leaving credit cards and his cellphone at home, and telling Bacsa he was done with their relationship, Karambelas disappeared.
Video footage at a South Elgin BP gas station showed him filling his tank and buying two bottles of soda and two bags of chips. Shortly after, a security camera recorded a car that looked like his 2008 beige Mercedes pull up to a 70-by-100-foot warehouse in South Elgin where supplies for the vending business were stored. A person exited the car, went into the warehouse and did not come out.
Bacsa discovered the car at the warehouse later that day.
“I wouldn’t go in there because I thought the worst,” Bacsa said. “The car didn’t upset me. It was the letters I found in the car.”
Bacsa called the South Elgin police. While she waited for them to arrive, she looked through the letters. There was one written to his dog, Pepperchini. She opened the letter marked “Baby Doll.” Inside was a plea for forgiveness. He wrote that he was sorry for letting her down and leaving.
Then the police arrived. An officer opened the door and went in.
“He was in there maybe 5 or 10 minutes,” Bacsa said. “I remember saying to him, ‘You weren’t even in there that long. It doesn’t really seem like your search was that great.”
The police found no clues. Knowing Tom had disappeared before, Bacsa decided not to file a missing person’s report. She was sure he would turn up sooner or later.
“I thought he was just playing games,” Bacsa said. “I just figured, ‘Here he is again, drama king,'”
Tom didn’t turn up. Instead, family members received large flower arrangements on Dec. 27. Bacsa also received $20,000 in gift cards.
Bill Karambelas was not accustomed to receiving flowers from his brother. The two hadn’t spoken in more than a year after a family argument.
“The card said, ‘I hope this will make you smile,'” Bill said. “I knew something was wrong right away.”
The flowers triggered phone calls to Bacsa, who then told Bill and his father, Pete Karambelas, that Tom had disappeared several days earlier. They told her to file a missing-person report. She did. And so began a search for Karambelas that examined everything from the hard drives of his personal computers to his phone, credit card records and gambling habits.
He’d booked a trip to Las Vegas, but he never showed up at the hotel. There were rumors he owed money to a group of guys with whom he played cards. Business associates thought Karambelas may have skipped town to avoid a $10,000 debt to the IRS.
Police chased all those leads. No one thought Karambelas could take his own life. And yet, there was the mystery of Tom’s car at the warehouse.
Even before Tom was officially missing, Andy Shanahan began searching.
Shanahan owns the warehouse where the vending business’ supplies are stored. He’d also conducted some real estate transactions with Karambelas on the side and considered himself more than just a landlord to Tom. He decided to check the last place there was any sighting of Tom — the warehouse.
Tom’s car had been moved inside by Bacsa. “The car is on the inside; our cameras show him walking in and not leaving the building,” Shanahan said. “It just makes sense that he would be in there.”
Shanahan searched. No Tom.
“I thought for sure I looked over everything in there,” he said.
Bacsa reported Tom missing on Dec. 27. Two days later, police interviewed her and her mother at the warehouse. Before the police arrived, three friends with whom Tom played cards, concerned about his disappearance, combed over the interior to search for any clues of where he was.
“I was 75 percent sure we would find a body,” said Perry Anguelo, one of the friends. “With the car and the notes he left, it just made sense that he was in that warehouse.”
The warehouse contained about 30 storage freezers stacked on a series of pallets.
“All we found were two coolers we couldn’t open,” Anguelo said.
The friends told the officer interviewing Bacsa and her mother about the sealed freezers. The subsequent police report indicates a search yielded no further clues and no evidence of foul play.
With those four searches of the warehouse complete, and police actively looking for Karambelas in other states, family members thrived on the idea that Tom was alive. But Bill Karambelas couldn’t stop thinking about the woods behind the warehouse.
On Jan. 29, 2012, Bill and Pete ventured into the woods. They didn’t find Tom, but they did find large drain pipes that could contain a person or any number of animals. The woods themselves were simply too large an area for two people to cover with any certainty they didn’t miss something. After several calls urging the police to check the woods, Kane County sheriff’s deputies arrived on Feb. 6 with a police dog.
While waiting for the dog, Bill entered the warehouse. Tom’s Mercedes was inside. It seemed like a good chance to have a look at the vehicle for himself.
Opening the passenger door, Bill found a sealed envelope marked “evidence.” It had been more than a month since police had been at the warehouse. Bill didn’t want to open it, so he waited for the detectives.
There is no record of any such envelope recorded in police files of the case, and sheriff’s detectives denied the envelope was one of theirs when they saw it, Karambelas said.
When they opened it they found a partially eaten hamburger. Karambelas wanted it tested for poison. There is no record about what became of the envelope or hamburger. Bill Karambelas said sheriff’s deputies told him it was discarded as not relevant to the search.
The police dog did not find Tom Karambelas in the woods. And, when detectives learned Bacsa wasn’t told about the search and did not provide consent to enter the warehouse, they left without taking the police dog inside.
Three months later, Tom was still missing.
By James Fuller
Christine Winter lives on an upscale block just outside of St. Charles, but you wouldn’t know it by looking out her window. She shares a view many suburban residents count as part of their landscapes — thanks to the thousands of homes left vacant when the housing bubble burst.
“It’s the house from hell,” Winter said. “It’s out of control.”
Winter said the home has stood empty for about two years now. Last winter, the pipes in the house burst causing flooding so rampant the fire department had to come out. Through the windows, the interior of the home now appears to be a Petri dish of various forms of mold. On the outside, weeds and other greenery hearken an environment Tarzan might enjoy. But it’s the hidden danger that has Winter the most upset.
By James Fuller
Kane County’s budget process began last week and already two wars, one financial and one political, are shaping up over how much taxpayer money is spent on lobbyists with connections to County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay.
In some respects, McConnaughay saw the political war coming even before the county first hired Chicago’s Raucci & Sullivan Strategies in 2006 to lobby on behalf of the health department. McConnaughay penned a letter that recognized her political history with the firm’s partner, Andrew Raucci.