Written by: Cheryl Anderson, Post Crescent Media
May 5, 2014
Mike Bartelt decided it was time for a change. A big one.
After dropping out of school at 16, struggling with a longtime alcohol addiction, an attempted suicide and two stints in prison — the most recent ending in October for his fifth OWI — the Appleton man said he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“I need to make something out of my life because I have a daughter and three grandkids,” said Bartelt, 50, a recovering alcoholic. “I’ve been a loser all my life and I’ve got to change. No one’s going to change it for me.”
Bartelt may not be able to create a new beginning to his life, but he’s taking a shot at a better ending thanks in part to a new program at the Grand Chute-based Fox Valley Technical College that helps Adult Basic Education (ABE) students by breaking down barriers that exist outside of education.
Bartelt is working on his GED, and on May 15 will be certified as a transport trailer service technician through FVTC’s 18-week program. He has been recruited by Master Fleet, and has been working second shift there for more than six weeks while finishing out classes.
After living most recently at the COTS men’s shelter in Appleton, Bartelt has moved into his own apartment in Neenah that’s close to his job.
“That’s what I get for asking for help,” he said with a laugh.
Bartelt’s pathway to success was made possible by a Barriers grant from the J.J. Keller Foundation that was awarded to FVTC last fall. The foundation was looking for an out-of-the-box idea to support with a $46,000 grant for a pilot cycle.
“We brainstormed, and after talking, we thought, we can pay for tuition but what about the things that prevent students from getting to school like clothing, haircuts and hygiene products,” said Chuck Wachter, FVTC client reporting and grants specialist and a member of the ABE leadership team.
Or simply having enough gas in the car to make the trek to class.
“We look at it as there is no barrier except your motivation,” said Wachter, who carries and answers the “barriers” cell phone 24/7.
The program fits well with the J.J. Keller Foundation’s mission to serve economically and academically disadvantaged students.
“It is designed to provide (students) with the skills necessary to gain and maintain employment that provides a life-sustaining wage,” Keller Foundation executive director Mary Harp-Jirschele said.
Bartelt received grants to pay for school, but needed funding for the tools required in the transport trailer program as well as other needs. That’s when he learned he was eligible for a Barriers grant, which provided more than just funding.
“Normally ABE students are kind of on their own,” Wachter said. “By grouping them together we’ve seen them grow such a tremendous bond with one another and they are using each other to overcome barriers. It just blew up and it was amazing. It’s not even the money that we had to put towards it. It’s the money and the attention and putting this group together.”
Participants in the program also are required to pay it forward by mentoring the next group of students and volunteering at area nonprofits. Bartelt volunteers at Loaves & Fishes of the Fox Valley through his church, Trinity Lutheran in Appleton.
The pay-it-forward philosophy is one of the most compelling reasons the Keller Foundation backed the Barriers program.
“Students have taken it upon themselves to volunteer at local agencies, which not only allows them to give back to the community, but to gain self-confidence and self-empowerment in the process,” Harp-Jirschele said.
Wachter, who has learned how to make dollars stretch, knew a new set of tools for Bartelt would retail for about $6,000, but “one way or another we were getting Mike these tools,” he said. “We get him through this education and his only barrier is the tools? We’re going to power through this one.”
Wachter bought tools that were going up for auction at FVTC for $200. It was about 75 percent of what Bartelt needed. The rest was supplemented through the Barriers grant.
“The money saved can now go back to other students,” said Wachter, who’s also lined up a deep discount at Kohl’s for students in need of work clothing and a dentist to offer discounted exams. Aerotech, a staffing agency in Appleton, has agreed to interview each student and offer individual feedback.
“The whole goal is to get them working and doing things on their own,” Wachter said.
Based on the success of the Barriers program, the Keller Foundation has agreed to a $45,000 grant for the second cycle.
“The results of the first year of the program was evidence that our investment in the second year of the program was not only warranted but critical to success in the long run,” Harp-Jirschele said.
It’s literally changed Bartelt’s life.
“From the first day of class moving forward he just kept accelerating and doing a lot bigger and better things,” said Nathan Krepline, Bartelt’s instructor in FVTC’s diesel technology program. “The way we have the classes set up here is it’s all stepping stones so that way the students would be able to build their confidence and build their level of success here.
“Mike has taken full advantage of that. … Everybody that is connected with this story sees the same thing. If he didn’t come to the college, where would he be? What would he have done?”
When Bartelt applied for the job at Master Fleet, he naturally asked to use Krepline as a reference.
“They never called me,” Krepline said. “I never even talked to the employer and (Mike) thought I did all this magical behind-the-scenes work. And I didn’t.”
— Cheryl Anderson: 920-993-1000, ext. 249, email@example.com; on Twitter @chermanderson