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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated Apartments; Wigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America. WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds. Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

Easterseals Workers Picket for Wage Increase

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Picketters at Easterseal's Former Offices

Workers from Easterseals in Rockford picketed in front of the organization’s former offices. Contract negotiations between the organization and the union are lagging over wage increases. 



Brenda Schlueter is a paraprofessional with Easterseals, an organization that provides educational services to children and young adults with behavioral or developmental disabilities. 


“What am I doing here? I want my company to pay us a fair wage so that we can attract more workers,” said Schuelter. "We are, we're really understaffed right now. We need more para[professionals]. More para will equal more safety for not only us but our students.”


Schlueter has worked with Easterseals nearly 9 years. She’s also one of the members of the bargaining committee represented by AFSCME Local 2515. She said that her job can get dangerous, and that sometimes comes from the students she's trying to help. 


“Because they're upset what happened about yesterday, or they don't like how their clothes are fitting, or they don't think they're getting enough attention," said Schlueter. "So they act out violently and physically. That gets a little scary.”


According to Schlueter, she’s had 5 concussions on the job and is currently recovering from one. In a video shared on social media last weekend, staff shared pictures of themselves including injuries they’ve suffered on the job. The injuries include broken bones, knee and shoulder damage, and black eyes.


The current union contract, the first ever for Easterseals workers in Rockford, lasts one year and includes wage freezes. But Schlueter said that she and her coworkers haven’t seen a raise in two years. Easterseals did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Easterseals’ Greater Rockford President and CEO issued a statement saying that they “continue to bargain in good faith” and care deeply for the students at the center of the discussions. 


Sara Dorner, representative for AFSCME Council 31, said that the union is prepared to use all of the legal channels available.



  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.