State worker, 34, retains personality, intellect as recovery continues

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Joshua Beneze’s personality and intellect have re-emerged, to the delight of his friends, family members and co-workers at the Illinois Community College Board in Springfield.

But the 34-year-old state employee, who suffered a stroke in November during a work-related, out-of-town trip to Rhode Island, still faces many challenges in his recovery.

“I’m OK,” he told The State Journal-Register last week at a nursing home in Lincoln, a day before he was discharged. “I’m not happy-go-lucky. But I’m optimistic. I try to be cheerful when I can.”

Beneze, a popular employee at the state agency who said he used to be more carefree, now speaks almost in a whisper because of the stroke’s impact on his vocal cords.

He survived with the help of a surgical procedure at a Rhode Island hospital in which a portion of his skull was removed and a port inserted to relieve brain swelling and drain fluid.

He said he would like to return eventually to his job as the community college board’s associate director for adult education and workforce. But first he needs to make sure his health is stable so his recovery can accelerate.

“I’m improving a lot faster than a lot of people thought I would,” said Beneze, who was born in South Korea and grew up in Dwight, Kankakee and Vandalia. “I don’t have a timeline. It could be months and months, if not a year or more.”

Feeding tube

Beneze (pronounced “ben-eh-ZEE”) was weaned off a ventilator during his almost four-month stay at Symphony of Lincoln. Before that, he spent a month at Vibra Hospital of Springfield, a long-term, acute-care hospital where he was brought after stays at two Rhode Island hospitals following the Nov. 14 stroke.

But because the stroke left him unable to swallow, Beneze, a bachelor who used to enjoy cooking pasta dishes and baking cookies, no longer can eat. He must be fed through a feeding tube to his stomach.

He has lost 80 pounds during the ordeal. Standing 5 feet 10 inches tall, he now weighs 246 pounds, he said.

He frequently has to clear his throat and cough up phlegm.

Worst of all, he said, he constantly feels dizzy — a situation that interferes with ongoing therapy to strengthen his weakened left side so he can start walking again and not depend on a wheelchair.

He hopes to get access to specialty care for the dizziness — through a neurologist, perhaps — now that he has moved in with his father and stepmother at their home in southeastern Montgomery County.

His father, John, 57, is a retired Vandalia Correctional Center officer. They all live in a rural area near Fillmore, a village of 260 people that is almost a 90-minute drive from Springfield.

 

Beneze also hopes to begin therapy to learn how to swallow again so he can eat regular food.

Co-worker support

So many hurdles stand in the distance, but each step achieved in his recovery has been inspiring for his co-workers, according to Samantha Brill, 28, a regional associate director for adult education and literacy at the community college board.

“He’s made a lot of progress,” said Brill, one of several college board employees who has regularly visited Beneze. She and two others oversee a GoFundMe page and a Marine Bank account that collectively have received about $13,400 in donations on Beneze’s behalf.

“Neurologically, he’s there,” Brill said. “We’re trying to move on to the next steps. He’s not completely Josh yet.”

About a dozen of Beneze’s co-workers have donated enough of their unused sick days and personal days to ensure that he remains on the payroll, receives his $41,760 annual salary, and retains his state employee health insurance at least through the end of April.

Brill said she and other friends of Beneze are helping him apply for Social Security disability benefits and the Medicare coverage that eventually could come with those benefits.

Beneze also may try to extend his work-related health insurance beyond April through a federal law called COBRA, but paying for that coverage would cost him a lot more than what he pays as a state employee. That’s where donations to the GoFundMe page could become essential, Brill said.

The fund already has helped pay deductibles and other out-of-pocket health costs not covered by insurance, Brill said.

Extremely grateful

No one predicted such a young man would have a potentially deadly stroke, Beneze said, though stroke was mentioned by his doctors among a list of potential complications related to heart disease after he had coronary artery blockages cleared and two stents inserted in 2012.

Leading up to the November trip, additional risk factors for Beneze included the fact that he was a smoker, had Type 2 diabetes and was carrying excess weight.

He said he remembers driving in Rhode Island the day of the stroke, then feeling dizzy, pulling the rental car into a gas station early in the afternoon Nov. 14 and falling out of the car after it stopped. A passer-by alerted a gas station attendant who called emergency responders.

Beneze blacked out and remembered waking up the next day in a hospital room with his mother, Ok Cha, and his best friend, Drew Jenkins of Springfield, at his bedside. Glimpses of other memories remain from the next several weeks, including the uncomfortable feeling of the breathing tube down his throat.

Compared with that period, his outlook nowadays is more positive, though he has gotten upset at times about his situation and the long road ahead.

“It’s periodic,” he said. “It lasts an hour or two. I cry it out. I talk it out, and I’m fine. I’ve not had any depression — no deep sadness.”

What really brings him to tears are thoughts of his colleagues at the community college board sacrificing their time off when they donated those days to him.

Beneze broke down and cried when asked his reaction to it.

“I’m extremely grateful,” he said. “I had no idea they cared so much.”

To pass the time and keep his mind occupied, Beneze has been watching a lot of TV, crocheting hats and berets, and putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. He said he taught himself to crochet five years ago and has been interested in puzzles for years.

He has received more than 150 letters and cards of support, many from people he never met who read or heard about his plight and mailed them to the board at 401 E. Capitol Ave., Springfield, IL 62701.

He had a message for his friends and the rest of the public:  

“Thank you. It’s woefully inadequate. But the only thing I can think of is, deeply from the heart, thank you.” 

— Contact Dean Olsen: dean.olsen@sj-r.com, 788-1543, http://twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.

 

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April 30, 2017 at 10:26AM

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State worker, 34, retains personality, intellect as recovery continues

Illinois higher ed spending growth questioned

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ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK

Illinois’ public universities and colleges have faced layoffs, declining enrollments and fears of campus closures as the state budget stalemate wears on, but recent financial studies point to past campus policies for their current plight.

An analysis by Local Government Information Services, a self-described government watchdog, found that the University of Illinois’ annual budget spiked 13-fold over enrollment growth since the early 1970s when adjusting for inflation.

The budget for the university is nearly 400 percent higher now than it was 45 years ago in adjusted dollars, even though student enrollment in the system is up only 28 percent within the same time period, according to the analysis.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, the minority spokesman on the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee, told Illinois News Network that in years past, universities and colleges were then able to offer generous benefits packages to employees due to the higher funding levels they were receiving from the state.

“This hasn’t been the case for years, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Brady said.

Illinois has cut higher education funding by 54 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between the height of the recent recession, in 2008, and 2016, a study released last year by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said.

Pension debts within the university and community college systems are also choking public funding for higher education, according to a fiscal data the Illinois Board of Higher Education provided.

“Years of underfunding the pension system has taken a toll,” the board’s report said. Indeed, statistics show that the state is spending more money on university retirement costs than on the core area of university operations.

The State Universities Retirement System currently is funded at 43.8 percent, and steadily increasing state support will be needed through 2045 for the funding to reach 90 percent, the Board of Higher Education reported.

“Pension funding will continue to compete for available state resources that could otherwise go for higher education programs,” the board said in its report.

Several key reforms will be needed for the higher education system to get on a sustainable path, even if a comprehensive state budget agreement is reached this year, Brady said.

“You need to look at what universities are doing and offering,” he said.

Some universities in the future may need to narrow their focus by reducing degree programs and concentrating on areas that they do best, Brady said.

“Illinois needs to adopt more performance-based funding standards,” as Tennessee has done, Brady said. Under that scenario, colleges and universities would reap state funding outlays based on positive outcomes, such as high graduation rates or successes in bringing in grant funding.

But Brady’s view of a leaner, more versatile higher education system contrasts with goals expressed by the Board of Higher Education. The board’s outlook sees a need to sharply increase the number of people with college degrees in the workforce in order to foster general economic growth in the state.

“Two-thirds of all new and replacement jobs will require a college credential,” the board’s analysis said.

A 2015 report by the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus sharply criticized the higher education system for administrative bloat and generous perks and benefits given to administrative staff.

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“At the same time tuition and student debt are rising at a breakneck pace, the administrative systems of public institutions have expanded into sprawling behemoths, with some of those at the very top enjoying lavish perks, including expense accounts, club memberships, vehicles and golden parachute severance payments,” the report said.

The caucus report said employees hired by universities and colleges to manage people or perform administrative functions soared 50 percent faster than the hiring of instructors between 2001 and 2011.

And while state support for public universities has sagged over the past 10 years, hikes in student tuition and fees have more than offset those cuts, the report said.

“Those trends debunk the common myth that spending on faculty is responsible for continuing cost escalation,” the caucus report said. “In public institutions, instructional spending declined the most during the 2003-2008 period.”

Andrew Nelms, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group that advocates for limited government, also expressed concerns about higher education overhead in Illinois.

“Institutions need to re-examine the ranks of administrators they need to find a way to deliver a higher quality education at a more reasonable cost,” Nelms said.

He also echoed the conclusions of the Democratic Caucus report and said that giving administrators generous six-figure salaries leads to spiraling pension obligations that burden taxpayers.

“Obviously, when Democrats in the legislature start to highlight the fact that there’s a problem with bloat in the administration, you know there’s a problem …” Nelms said. “We have university presidents that make far more than the governor.”

Illinois higher ed spending growth questioned

NEIU’s first fundraising campaign goes public

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NEIU’s first fundraising campaign goes public

Courtesy of Joe Davis_Northeastern Illinois University

The Vice President for Institutional Advancement Liesl Downey spoke at the Transforming Lives launch fundraising campaign on Apr. 7.

Sarahy Lopez, News Editor

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For the first time in its 150-year anniversary, NEIU launched a fundraising campaign that intends to gather $10 million to support the school and its students.

At almost its second year without a state budget, NEIU publicly announced the campaign on April 7. The goal of the “Transforming Lives” campaign is to keep the university running and ensure a future for students.

The “Transforming Lives” campaign started its silent phase in Jan. 2014

“The Board had been talking about when we were going to have a campaign, and we weren’t quite ready until 2014,” said Liesl Downey, Vice President for Institutional Advancement. The campaign began years prior with the intention to be completed sometime in 2017-18, in honor of the 150th year of the university.

“We’ve been working in the silent phase. What you do during that period is that you approach those nearest and dearest, to which you say ‘We are in the quiet phase of this campaign, would you consider making an investment of x amount of dollars for this priority?” Downey said.

The Transforming Lives campaign has two main initiatives: the Extraordinary Scholarship Support and Exceptional Learning Environments. The Scholarship Support will help students pay for college by funding scholarships, fellowships, research-related travel and internships. Exceptional Learning Environments will assist with endowed funds for NEIU’s departments and programs, provide naming opportunities for buildings and spaces, endowed professorship and research grants.

Downey, who revealed the fundraising campaign on April 7, explained the first ever endowed professorship program which supports faculty, “It is a fairly broad application and we did that intentionally because with this campaign, what we really want to do is to make sure that people are aware of Northeastern and that they’re inspired to make their first contribution. It’s so broad that you can really say you know what? I did graduate from biology, I really want to do something for those professors that meant something for me.”

The initiative “Exceptional Learning Environments” is to ultimately support faculty research and give back to those departments.

The “Scholarship Supports” goal is $6 million, while “Exceptional Learning Environments” intends to raise $4 million, equaling to $10 million. Currently, the campaign has raised over $5 million, well on its way to completion before  the deadline of New Year’s Eve, 2018.

This paved the way to the campaign goal of $10 million with the help of the NEIU Foundation, donors like former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Daniel Goodwin who pledged $2.5 million, administrative staff, faculty, and alumni. Another major contributor is the Class Gift Fund, where graduating seniors from NEIU can make a donation of $20.17 to assist the Class Gift Scholarship.

Downey said they might’ve been “a little conservative” about when they wanted to go public, but their hope was when they reached a certain amount, it would inspire and show others how well on the way the campaign was to its goal. It is general practice to go public once a campaign has reached 40-60% of completion.

“The whole principle is that you see success is already on its way,” Downey stated. “This is how Northeastern transforms lives.”

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April 29, 2017 at 05:11PM

NEIU’s first fundraising campaign goes public

Students part of action day

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Sauk Valley Community College nursing student poster winners are (sitting, from left) Raquel Romano, Jesse Pate, and Jacqueline Gross; and (back row) Emily Kitsmiller, Aleena Hammelman, and Vanessa Kitsmiller. The group participated in the March 28 Student Nurse Political Day in Springfield. Photo submitted by Chris Pilling.
Sauk Valley Community College nursing student poster winners are (sitting, from left) Raquel Romano, Jesse Pate, and Jacqueline Gross; and (back row) Emily Kitsmiller, Aleena Hammelman, and Vanessa Kitsmiller. The group participated in the March 28 Student Nurse Political Day in Springfield. Photo submitted by Chris Pilling.

DIXON – A group of 50 students from Sauk Valley Community College Nursing program attended the 19th annual Student Nurse Political Action Day on March 28 in Springfield.

The first-year students won second place at the event in the American Nurses Association-Illinois poster contest. Jacqueline Gross, Aleena Hammelman, Emily Kitsmiller, Vanessa Kitsmiller, Jesse Pate, and Raquel Romano, group created a poster that focused on nurses’ roles in public policy.

Participants explored educational career opportunities, met with legislators, and discussed how current bills affect their futures.

For more information, call the school at 815-835-6354.

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April 28, 2017 at 06:28PM

Students part of action day

Rally for Funding Illinois Colleges and Universities

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From the State Capitol: With hundreds of millions of dollars owed to colleges and universities across Illinois, lawmakers and Democrat candidates for Governor, JB Pritzker and Sen Dan Biss, speak at a rally on the Capitol grounds. The lack of a state budget, has resulted in a bill backlog of over $13.5 billion, which grows by millions of dollars daily. And as we see in this rally, the lack of a budget is going to be a key issue in the 2018 race for governor.

Rally for Funding Illinois Colleges and Universities

EIU Faculty Rallies Against Education Cuts at Capitol

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Faculty and staff from Eastern Illinois University were at the statehouse Thursday to rally against higher education funding cuts. (WCCU)

Charleston, Ill. (WCCU) — 

Faculty and staff from Eastern Illinois University were at the statehouse Thursday to rally against higher education funding cuts.

Fox Champaign’s Nikki McGee has more.

EIU Faculty Rallies Against Education Cuts at Capitol

WIU Professors to Join Higher Education Rally in Springfield

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College professors across Illinois will step away from their classrooms to rally in Springfield on Thursday, April 27. The event called Teach Out for Illinois Higher Education is in response to the state budget stalemate.

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April 26, 2017 at 11:52PM

WIU Professors to Join Higher Education Rally in Springfield