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Art's healing potential: Mural at veterans housing program in Chippewa Falls helps its creator recover from unfortunate times, as well as others who see it

Leader-Telegram - 10/19/2018

Oct. 19--CHIPPEWA FALLS -- James Heber became homeless last year while living in La Crosse. As an Army veteran -- he served in 1992-- he wound up coming to Chippewa Falls to be helped by the Wisconsin Veteran Housing and Recovery Program.

While living at the program's Klein Hall, someone suggested Heber put his art skills to work and create a mural on one of the blank walls in a main hallway. Heber sketched out some ideas, and they quickly were approved.

So Heber went to work, spending more than 800 hours carefully laying out and painting the 36-foot-long, 6-foot-tall mural.

On Thursday, Heber's mural was unveiled during a ceremony before a crowd of 80 people, with Heber explaining the story of the artwork. It begins with him signing up for the military, moves into a deployment scene, then returning home, only to become homeless and winding up at Klein Hall. The final scene is returning to the community.

"It was very therapeutic for me," Heber said of the hours spent on the artwork.

The 42-bed Klein Hall opened in December 2007 in a building that used to be part of the Northern Wisconsin Center for the developmentally disabled. The artwork on the walls fits the clientele of the Northern Center, said Mike Hanke, director of the veterans housing program.

"The walls had murals that looked like a day care center," Hanke said. "There were pink bunnies. It wasn't appropriate for veterans."

Hanke and others worked on plans to renovate the interior, which led to Heber's artwork.

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Daniel Zimmerman attended the ceremony, and he applauded the thought and devotion that went into creating the storyline in the mural. Current and future residents will walk past it and be able to relate to Heber's history, he said.

"It's truly an incredible gift to this program," Zimmerman said.

Heber grew up in Fond du Lac and graduated from high school there. He said it was important for him to have a deployment scene -- even though he never served overseas -- and it needed to show teamwork and military equipment, but with no explosions, blood or violence. Heber said too many of the veterans in Klein Hall have post-traumatic stress disorder, and he didn't want them to relive trauma when they saw his artwork.

Heber arrived at Klein Hall in May 2017 and plans to stay the full two years allowed.

"It's very important, and very humbling, because it brings about change," Heber said of the housing and recovery program. "It's awesome it's a two-year program, because they help you fix your life and get you back on track."

The 30,400-square-feet, two-story Klein Hall was named for Bill Klein, who started the program for homeless veterans. Since the program began, 360 veterans have stayed there.

"This is not a shelter," Hanke said. "This is a program. Veterans come in to live. This is transitional housing."

He added: "Veterans who come here work. They sweep, they shovel snow, they cut grass. They take care of the facility."

Programming is offered to help veterans find jobs and move back into their own homes. Veterans share rooms, which are in six different pods. The building has a computer lab, which veterans are encouraged to use for job searching.



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