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Rafalski finally takes flight

After an almost two-year hiatus, Honor Flight Chicago returned to Washington, D.C., with a local veteran on board the first flight.

The program takes veterans on a day trip to the nation’s capital to tour monuments and see the sights as a thank you for their service.

On Aug. 18, Honor Flight Chicago was the first to take flight after the pandemic-related hiatus. After five years, Ed Rafalski, of Manteno, finally had a seat on that flight.

“The whole day was overwhelming. I’m still walking on air over it,” he said.

Rafalski is no stranger to the skies as he served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972. During that time, he served in the Vietnam War.

“I volunteered to go to Vietnam,” he said, sharing that he went to Vietnam on Jan. 4, 1970 and returned exactly one year later.

Growing up in Calumet City, Rafalski enlisted at age 17 as he knew the Air Force would provide him with an education and the tools to learn a trade. With this, he was able to have a long career as a mechanic with Bauer Buick in Harvey.

Eventually making his way south to Manteno, Ed is currently active in the Manteno American Legion and serves on its board. He submitted for Honor Flight in 2016 and has been on the waitlist since.

He was initially scheduled for the flight in 2020, but that was put on hold due to COVID-19. Honor Flight Chicago provided a lawn sign for Rafalski to place outside of his home.

As vaccinations started being doled out, the Air Force veteran received word that he would be flying in 2021. More than ever, safety was the No. 1 priority of the program.

“I got all new paperwork and, if you didn’t have your shots, they wouldn’t even talk to you,” he said.

The first part of the process was a sit-down interview with an Honor Flight volunteer — who happened to be a Manteno resident. She took down Rafalski’s story which was included in an online profile as part of the program’s website.

Royalty for a day

The day of the flight, a friend of Rafalski picked him up at 1:30 a.m. to bring him to Midway Airport. Because D.C. is an hour ahead, the program schedules early flights to make the most of the day.

After going through security, volunteers welcomed the group of 112 veterans — including three World War II veterans — with a breakfast spread before boarding the plane.

“They were constantly feeding us,” said Rafalski, who said they provided three full meals for the day. “They wanted to cater to [us].”

The group flew into Alexander, Va., and was greeted by a band upon arrival. There, all of the veterans met their escorts for the day who would show them around the capital.

Rafalski’s escort was a D.C. resident, which provided extra insight to the day’s tours. Additionally, the group was surrounded all day long by active-duty military.

The first stop was the Marine Corps Memorial where the Marines displayed a silent drill. Between this and the next stop to the World War II Memorial, a heavy storm rolled in.

“When we got to the WWII Memorial, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and this intense sun came out,” he recalled, adding that they took a group photo and sang the national anthem.

Next, they went to the Lincoln Memorial and then walked to the Vietnam Wall, where The Three Soldiers statue and the Nurses Statue are located.

“I learned that if there was a diamond next to the name, the remains were never recovered,” Rafalski said of the Vietnam Wall. “If there was a cross next to the name, that means the remains were returned to the family.”

An emotional journey

This part of the day brought about emotions for Rafalski, who took time to silently remember his fallen comrades.

“I couldn’t help it, I was crying,” he said.

After lunch and museum tours, the group headed back to the airport where they were greeted with a reception. During the flight home, volunteers provided the veterans with the surprise “mail call” as family and friends were invited to write letters to their veterans.

Rafalski’s daughter, Maryellen Raimondi, had put together a package of letters from school children and local politicians. Rafalski is currently working on sending “thank yous” to all who wrote to him.

The final surprise of the day came when they returned to Midway and were greeted with another reception. The veterans got to do something of a parade around baggage claim, where friends and family had gathered with signs of celebration.

Rafalski said that sailors from the Great Lakes were in attendance, as well as current members of the Navy. His daughter was there with a sign, and his friends providing him with transportation were part of the “welcome home” flag line.

Still elated by the experience, Rafalski encourages fellow veterans who haven’t had the experience to sign up for Honor Flight.

“I’m so glad I went,” he said. “Just sign up, you earned it.”

For more information on Honor Flight Chicago and to read Ed Rafalski’s profile, go to honorflightchicago.org/edmund-rafalski-jr/.

Rowe: Answer to community's violence lies in children

KANKAKEE — People walk up to one another each and every day and extend their right hand to offer a greeting.

The words which follow are as seemingly routine as opening our eyes each morning. The question, “How are you doing?” is most often the next step in the greeting.

Some people may complete this greeting a few times a week and others possibly dozens of times a week.

But Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe, the keynote speaker at Thursday’s 2021 Legislative Reception for Kankakee County, said there are areas in Africa where the question is different and believes it needs to become a custom here in Kankakee County, in Illinois, and in the United States.

“Before they talk about anything, they ask, ‘How are the children doing?’” Rowe said. It’s a question that goes unanswered far too often here, he said.

“If the children are well, the family unit is well,” he said at the event hosted by the Kankakee County Farm Bureau and the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce.

He extended the wellness to larger scales. If families are well, then the neighborhood is well. If the neighborhood is well, the town is well. If the town is well, the schools are well.

“How are the children in Kankakee County?” Rowe asked the now-quiet diners at the Kankakee Country Club.

How well are all the children in Kankakee County, Rowe asked. He posed a question to the audience: “What if someone asked you?”

One week removed from the double-fatal shootings immediately south of the Kankakee County Courthouse, questions are not only being asked as to how to deal with growing gun violence but also the mental health of our community’s youth.

Antonio Hernandez, 24, and Victor Andrade, 26, were killed in the shootout. Miguel Andrade, 23, who eventually shot and killed Hernandez, a gang member alleged to have started the incident when he shot Victor and another man with Victor, remains in the custody of the Kankakee Police.

But how did such young men find themselves in a gun battle on that hot, sunny summer morning near the courthouse, Rowe wondered. It brought him back to the question: How are our children doing?

Of course, Kankakee County — and Kankakee in particular — must deal with these types of images far too often. He said counseling was made available to courthouse personnel who witnessed the incidents of that day.

But, he wondered once again, what resources are made available to children who witness traumatic events on a repeated basis? What access do they have to services to help them?

He said while the Aug. 26 event brought significant portions of our community to a standstill, these types of crimes are not infrequent in many areas of the city and county. In far too many of the incidents, they fail to even make a blip on the screen.

“We have to start asking why?” he said. In most cases, he noted, these are people who have almost nothing to lose, yet they lose even the little they have.

“How do we end up as a community with this violence touching our streets?” he asked.

Can it change? Perhaps. But Rowe stressed the question must be repeatedly asked — “How are the children?”

Former Grant Park fire chief accused of harassing paramedic

GRANT PARK — A recent regular meeting of the Grant Park Fire Protection District Board of Trustees drew a larger-than-normal audience. Many of the approximately 60 people in attendance were there in search of answers regarding recent staff changes in the district.

They came away from the hour-long meeting at the fire station disappointed as no information was revealed.

At question is the July 12 resignation of Matt Shronts, who was named fire chief in 2020 after 19 years with the district. In the days following his resignation, Shronts was put on administrative leave by the Beecher Fire Protection District where he serves full time as a lieutenant.

Those inquiring about Shronts’ resignation during the Grant Park district meeting on Aug. 18 were given the same response the Daily Journal has received in recent weeks. Questions have been deferred to the inability to discuss personnel matters per the state’s Open Meetings Act.

As Board President Gene Rademacher offered that explanation at the August meeting, a man in the audience shouted, “He doesn’t work here anymore.” Rademacher responded by saying, “It is still a personnel matter we have dealt with.”

The board’s attorney, Thomas J. Gilbert, followed by saying, “Gene has gone past what I advised him to say [during the public comment portion of the meeting].”

Coming forward

But there is someone who is talking — a former paramedic/EMT for the Grant Park district.

The woman contacted the Daily Journal following published reports of Shronts’ resignation. As a possible victim, she is not being identified. The Journal, however, has verified who she is and the actions she says she has taken.

Those actions include addressing the district trustees at their April 21 meeting and filing a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The woman said she told the trustees during an executive session she had been sexually harassed by Shronts from September 2019 until she left the department in December 2020. She had worked for the department since January 2019.

Shronts began sending her messages through Snapchat and texts, she said, adding that he asked her to send him nude photos of herself. She also alleges that he showed up at her house and more than once made forceful advances to her when they were alone together at the station.

She said Shronts became angry when she got engaged in September 2020 and the harassment worsened.

The Daily Journal’s multiple attempts to contact Shronts have been unsuccessful.

Loss of employment

She said she received a termination letter dated April 7, 2021, from Shronts in his role as chief. The paperwork stated she was being terminated for missing work and for not being up-to-date on certifications and training.

She denies the allegation that she had not kept up with licenses and accreditations, saying Shronts had himself issued her a new CPR card after she completed the necessary online courses.

As for not showing up to work, she said, that is wholly accurate. She took another job and stopped taking shifts at the station.

“I left because of what I was dealing with with Matt Shronts,” she said. “I got tired of the abuse. I wanted to eliminate myself from the situation. I couldn’t go to anybody about my issues.”

Reporting the harassment

She said due to department structure, she had been unable to report the harassment before her resignation.

The department has had no deputy chief since Shronts took over as chief in 2019. There are two captains and three lieutenants. She said it is a small-town department and a couple of the officers were friends of Shronts.

“Since Matt Shronts is the fire chief and Matt Shronts is the administration, he made sure fire department matters had to come through him,” she said. “How could I make a complaint about the chief to the chief?”

She said she decided to go to the district board after receiving the termination letter.

“They thought I was there to talk about my termination letter,” she said of the April 21 meeting. “I was but I wanted them to tell them the reasons for the letter. When I told them that, they went from defensive to looking like, ‘Oh [expletive].’”

‘Some claims founded’

The law firm representing the district board — Ottosen, DiNolfo, Hasenbaig and Castaldo — investigated her claims, she said.

She said she was informed earlier this month of the results of that investigation via a memo from the law firm.

She provided the Journal a copy of the memo and it included the following: “Based upon the investigation, the District has concluded that, in addition to other issues, some of your claims are founded. The District responded to this finding by removing Chief Shronts from his position as Chief of the District.

“Chief Shronts was offered the opportunity to resign or be terminated, Chief Shronts decided to voluntarily resign from his position effective July 12, 2021. Additionally, as part of his resignation, Matt Shronts is prohibited from any further participation with the District, in any capacity.”

After the board’s Aug. 18 meeting, board attorney Gilbert told the Journal he could not say whether or not the memo was authentic because it involved a personnel issue.

Overwhelmed KCHD staff suspends COVID testing on first day

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County Health Department launched a free COVID-19 testing program Wednesday morning only to suspend it a few hours later due to the strain it exerted on the workforce, county health administrator John Bevis said Thursday.

He said the department decided to attempt drive-up testing a few weeks ago, before Gov. JB Pritzker’s new indoor mask mandate and vaccine and testing requirements for educators and health workers were announced. The goal was to remove some of the barriers community members might face to get tested.

“We don’t have to do this testing but we thought it would be good for the community,” he said. “We didn’t recognize the amount of activity it was going to require and it was going to take too many people, so we had to pull the plug.”

Before starting testing, Bevis said the department planned to have two employees handling the paperwork when people drove up to get tested between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. They did not know what to expect for turnout.

After posting about the free testing on Facebook Wednesday morning, the staff was immediately overwhelmed, Bevis said. There were always three to four cars in line, some full with four or more people wanting tests.

“We knew that [Wednesday’s] 50 people within a couple of hours will probably result into hundreds a day. And that’s just too much for us,” he said.

The department was short-staffed for the day but pulled more workers to help out, including someone to direct traffic in the parking lot, Bevis said.

He said that the actual process of taking tests and delivering results went fairly well, but demand would increase as the health department was recommended as a resource and individuals who are now required to get regular testing set up routines.

“We need to put our focus back on the contact tracing and the education of the public and vaccinating people, and leave the testing to other agencies that are already doing it,” Bevis said.

The county has several testing sites in operation, which can be found at bit.ly/K3testing. Bevis said he thinks there are enough testing sites to meet current demand in the county since they were not overrun last fall and early winter when the county experienced its peak in cases.

The health department has no date or plan to resume testing at this time, Bevis said, but it will request an Illinois Department of Public Health mobile testing unit to come to the county.

“It takes the stress and burden off the staff of the health department and then accomplishes getting people in the community tested,” he said. “And if 200 people come to it a day for them, that’s great, that’s what the state wants, but it’s not a number that the health department staff can maintain.”

Many health departments do not run their own testing, Bevis said, and he spoke with other administrators who said they would not have attempted it.

“It overwhelmed us and I apologize for that, but at least we tried,” he said. “We can see now, you know, if we do it in the future, what we would need.”