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COVID unemployment benefits near end

As supplemental unemployment benefits will see their end in the coming days, the county’s economic development leader says it’s yet another sign for America to get back to work.

Under the federal programs set to expire Sept. 4, people who found themselves out of work during the pandemic have been receiving an additional $300 weekly payment and extended benefits beyond the weeks normally offered. There has also been mixed benefits for those who were self-employed and also receiving a check from an employer.

The federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for these extra benefits is about to dry up, spelling the end of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

Tim Nugent, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, said that this will only affect benefits that were created and provided as a result of the pandemic. Standard, or non-pandemic related, unemployment benefits will not be impacted.

“They did it with a timeframe on there to get people through the tough times until more companies opened up and more jobs became available,” he said. “The idea with the sunset clause is that, at some time, we have to get back to normal.”

Now that more jobs have opened around the county — and around the country — that time is now, he said.

Nugent said that a number of states have already ended benefits and many who were losing those benefits have yet to seek employment.

“It’s kind of disheartening because the jobs are out there, and the whole idea is ‘let’s get back to normal,’ but it seems that everybody wants to get back to a different type of normal where work is not necessarily a priority,” he said.

He believes people have adapted their style of living to make these changes work for them. In addition to the unemployment benefits, there have been programs allowing for non-payment of rent and utilities which have made going back to work less of a necessity.

He noted that recent job fairs in the area have been seeing more employers than applicants, and it may take a while to see people return to work as a result of additional benefits that have been in place. It may take the non-payment allowances to end, as well.

Nugent stressed that there is compassion for those who are unemployed because they cannot get back to work, but for those who can work, the excuse of “there’s no jobs” is no longer justified due to the amount of openings.

“At some point, people have to take responsibility for themselves, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve lost,” he said. “The government gave you some extra stuff during the time that it was definitely needed [but] now it’s time for us to step up.”

Families of overdose victims and local organizations help bring awareness

KANKAKEE — They were brothers, a nephew, a son and a brother-in-law. All four died of opioid overdoses.

“They are not junkies. They are not dirty. They are not homeless. It happens to all people,” Riverside EMS Systems Manager Al Ponton said about those battling opioid addiction during a program Tuesday marking International Overdose Awareness Day.

“These are people who have families. These people suffered a traumatic incident, battled mental health issues and addiction,” Ponton added.

During his time as an ER nurse, Ponton said he recalled when a man in his 50s was pronounced dead of an overdose.

“The man had a Ph.D.,” Poston said. “When we called his wife, she did not believe it was him. ‘It had to be someone else.’ She did not know he used drugs.”

Ponton said the man came to the Kankakee area, staying at a hotel. Asking which areas to avoid for safety, the clerk drew a circle on the map. That is where the man purchased his drugs, Ponton said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the number of people who died from overdoses in the U.S. in 2020 was about 93,000.

According to the Kankakee County Coroner’s website, there have been 30 confirmed overdose deaths since the fiscal year 2021 started in November.

In fiscal year 2020, there were 50 confirmed overdose deaths, the most since 56 in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, there were 29 each year.

A time of remembrance

Tuesday’s program was a Kankakee County Health Department event in conjunction with Life Education Center of Pledge for Life Partnership, The Salvation Army of Kankakee, Partnership for a Healthy Community and the office of State Rep. Jackie Haas, R-Kankakee.

Organizers aimed to raise awareness about the risks of drug abuse. They also allowed time for family members who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses to share their stories with those gathered at The Salvation Army in Kankakee.

One of those choosing to share their story was Carrie Meents-Whitlock. She lost her son, Matthew Whitlock, to an overdose on Nov. 19, 2018, in Kankakee.

“He was an amazing person,” Meents-Whitlock said.

On the day of his death, Meents-Whitlock said her 25-year-old son left the place where he was receiving treatment for his addiction. He bought heroin and overdosed. He was found in a vehicle in the parking lot just a few blocks away from where he purchased the drugs in Kankakee.

Toxicology results from her son’s autopsy showed the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.

A woman, Angeline, talked about her nephew who died of an overdose. They did not know he had a problem, she said.

“You miss the signs,” she said. “Families need to know you need to treat the addiction, mental health and the traumatic event at the same time.”

Fran talked about a family member who overdosed while there were other members of the family in the house. They recall him as a military veteran who had a good sense of humor that could make you laugh.

“This problem affects families,” she told those gathered Tuesday. “The holidays are very tough.”

St. Anne Grade School reverses course, requires masks

ST. ANNE — St. Anne Grade School District 256 will be requiring masks starting today after being placed on probation for going against Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order mandating masks in schools.

Jed Beaupre, school board president, said the board voted at a special meeting Monday to reverse course on the school’s mask-optional policy.

Just like the initial 5-2 vote to defy the mandate, board members were split on this decision as well.

The change on Monday passed 3-1, while two members abstained.

In an Aug. 25 letter from the Illinois State Board of Education, the school district was told it was being placed on probation and given 60 days to come into compliance. The letter also gave a timeline for the superintendent to have a video or phone conference with ISBE.

After receiving the letter, the district was notified by the Illinois Elementary School Association stating that participation in fall extracurricular activities would not be affected, as the organization was not requiring masks, Beaupre said.

However, the IESA reached out a few days later and communicated the opposite — any schools on probation would have to be in compliance by early September for students to be able to participate in state events/postseason games.

“After hearing that, I sent a very discouraging email to the IESA Board of Directors explaining my disgust in their change in their stance,” Beaupre said.

Monday evening, athletic directors were notified by the IESA that they were being given a 15-day extension and would have until around mid-September to comply with ISBE, he said.

Even with the extension, the timeline does not match up with the 60-day timeline given by ISBE.

Beaupre said the possibility of students not being able to compete in postseason games was a main factor for the board in deciding to comply with the governor’s mask mandate.

“Like I said at our first special board meeting, kids lose either way,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are holding our kids hostage.”

Before the district can be removed from the probation list, the superintendent must submit a plan of action to ISBE and await its response.

Board votes in favor of shifting to comply with the mandate were from Beaupre, Christopher Tolly and Barbara Emerson. The vote against it came from Tim Wednt.

Louie Farber and Lydia Leveque voted “present,” meaning they abstained.

Beaupre said the board would likely bring the issue up again at its next regular board meeting scheduled for Sept. 27 and may take another vote; he expects and encourages parents on both sides of the issue to attend the meeting and share their views.

“This is not over,” he said.

Incident at CSL leads to arrest

BRADLEY — A 28-year-old Bourbonnais man was arrested by Bradley police following a pair of strange incidents in Monday’s early morning hours that ended with a woman being held against her will.

According to Bradley police, the incidents started at 4 a.m. when officers responded to a call of a domestic dispute near the east gate of CSL Behring that involved Diamond C. Armstrong, of Bourbonnais, and a woman. It was resolved without incident.

An employee of CSL, Armstrong then started his shift. CSL Behring did confirm there was an incident at the entrance to the manufacturing plant along Illinois 50 involving an employee, but declined comment beyond that and referred questions to police.

According to information a Kankakee County assistant state’s attorney provided during Armstrong’s bond hearing on Tuesday, a supervisor noticed Armstrong acting strangely and took him off his shift.

The supervisor asked a security guard to drive Armstrong to the front gate, according to court documents.

During that ride, the prosecutor said Armstrong pulled a gun on the guard and demanded to be driven to a residence. The guard did as ordered and took Armstrong to the 1500 block of Girard Avenue, southeast of Northfield Square mall.

After Armstrong got out of the vehicle, the guard drove back to CSL where personnel called 911, according to authorities.

Soon after, at about 5:15 a.m., Bradley police responded to a call on Girard Avenue. While en route to that area, police were advised by the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Department that deputies had an incident with someone at the CSL entrance with a man who was taken to that area.

Upon arriving at Girard, police said they recognized Armstrong who was grasping a bag, which they believed contained a handgun, and holding onto a woman while in front of the building. He was ordered by police to release the woman and drop the bag.

After several orders, Armstrong dropped the bag, let go of the woman and ran to a nearby vehicle, police say. He then surrendered to Bradley police and was taken into custody.

Officers say they found a loaded revolver in the bag.

The Kankakee County State’s Attorney’s office charged Armstrong with unlawful vehicular invasion, forcible detention while armed, aggravated restraint and aggravated unlawful use of a loaded weapon with no FOID card.

Kankakee County Circuit Judge Bill Dickenson set Armstrong’s bond at $100,000. Should Armstrong pay the required 10 percent of the bond to be released, Dickenson said Armstrong is to have no contact with CSL.