After 25 years of local social work, Bob Blankenhagen recently decided to retire.
Blankenhagen, who has worked for Dane County since 1979 in various roles, will leave his post as part of the Joining Forces for Families (JFF) program on Friday. He’s been working out of the DeForest Police Department office and also in Waunakee for years, making referrals to assist local families and performing early interventions in situations that could eventually involve the court system.
After graduating college with a psychology degree, Blankenhagen began work in Dane County’s juvenile court and detention system.
“I found it intriguing working with youth at the time and had high hopes in making a difference in their lives,” Blankenhagen said.
Several years later, he moved on to work for the county’s human services department, which ultimately led him to his current job. Since 1994, Blankenhagen has worked as a community social worker through the JFF initiative, which aims to address basic and personal needs of families, as well as support efforts to make areas safer and healthier places.
Since 2001, Blankenhagen has been splitting his JFF time between those living in the DeForest and Waunakee school districts. On any given day, Blankenhagen could be interacting with a parent worried about their child’s dependence on drugs or alcohol, or connecting with a senior looking for housing. According to him, there was never a way to know what would come up throughout the day.
“(The JFF program) is almost dictated by the community or neighborhood the office is in,” Blankenhagen said. “We try to keep an open-door policy, so we never really know what issues are going to be brought to us as people walk through the door.”
Although a community social worker like Blankenhagen might not have all the answers for people right away, he said they do their best to be as helpful as possible and connect individuals with additional resources when needed.
Over the years, Blankenhagen has seen an increase in housing instability. He said while the county is attracting new businesses, it leads to a need for more employees, but oftentimes people are unable to find housing nearby.
“DeForest is just a microcosm of the overall housing problem,” Blankenhagen said, explaining he thinks it’s an issue across southern Wisconsin.
The same is true in Waunakee, where families are having a harder time staying in their housing or finding housing, he said.
“A lot of that is caused by an interruption in income or a sickness, a loss of jobs. All it takes is a little issue with the income stream, and families run into an issue with their housing,” Blankenhagen said.
In Waunakee, where the JFF has most recently been located at Heritage Elementary School, Blankenhagen has worked with other organizations to assist families. Those include the Waunakee Neighborhood Connection and the Waunakee Ecumenical Board.
The Waunakee Ecumenical Board has assisted families with the food pantry and emergency funds.
“I try to report out to the ecumenical board every year as to the number of referrals I’ve made to them,” Blankenhagen said, adding the organization has prevented a significant number of evictions and utility disconnections, and helped families have their utilities reconnected.
The Waunakee school district has also been supportive of JFF.
“They have always been willing to respond to issues that the Waunakee JFF team has seen and wanted to work on,” Blankenhagen said. “I think they wanted to do that because they believe in the vision of JFF and they wanted to positively affect families in the Waunakee area.”
After his last day on Jan. 10, Blankenhagen plans to travel with his wife, spend more time with his grandchildren and help out his parents and mother-in-law during retirement. A successor for Blankenhagen has not yet been named.
Roberta Baumann contributed to this story.