Jerry Davich: Embracing the human tapestry of region key to improving quality of life
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org January 19, 2013 8:56PM
Ronne Teselsky, 75, packs up several dolls she made at her home in New Chicago, Ind. Tuesday January 15, 2013. Teselsky, who lives on her own, has written a book of fiction she published last year, and also makes dolls for children in her family despite undergoing cancer treatments. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
To learn more
Read the 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report online a www.post-trib.com.
Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM
The numbers are in, but what will we do with them?
The 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report is chock-full of telling figures, rising trends and key findings regarding Northwest Indiana.
The report, the fourth in a series, offers us a baseline view and statistical snapshot of who we are, where we’re headed and how we’ve changed in the past dozen years or so. Key “leading indicators” have been identified, qualified and quantified: Health, economy, environment, transportation, public safety, education, housing, culture and government.
Our mission as a region, however, is to do something constructive with all this data. It’s connected like a societal spider web. But how?
First, to spark a dialogue with our leaders, movers and shakers. Then, to prompt action to improve our shortcomings. Not an action plan or a call to action, but action. Period.
Beginning today, the Post-Tribune will run a monthly series exploring this report, its key findings and eye-opening statistics. The newspaper will break down, analyze and illustrate each indicator through stories, photos and graphics.
First up is the “people” indicator which, data show, is becoming more diverse, with more people living alone, and aging at a clip faster than the state and national average.
“Too often, the people of Northwest Indiana have defined themselves by their historic differences,” the report states, citing what is obvious to anyone who has lived here for a while.
The 2004 Quality of Life report recognized racial division as the “Achilles’ heel” of our region, but since then we’re all blue in the face from mostly talking about this touchy issue.
The updated report was designed to be a tool, not only to build a dialogue among our leaders but also to construct a concrete challenge to every region resident.
Can we make our region more inclusive and connected? Can we create equal opportunities for all? Can we foster a more welcoming culture? More importantly, can we transform our complex human tapestry from a liability to an asset? The answer is — you guessed it — in our people.
Black population boom in Porter County
Larry and Lalita Jones didn’t make a fuss over it, but they couldn’t ignore what has become obvious to them in Portage.
They are usually the only African-Americans in the room — any room in the region’s third-largest city — after moving here from Merrillville about a decade ago.
“Wherever we go,” Lalita explained to me in the living room of the couple’s home. “But I love it. It shows there are no boundaries. God created us, all of us, the same. Once people see that we are genuine, sincere and not a threat, they accept us.”
According to updated data, racial and ethnic diversity increased within the region between 2000 and 2010. African-Americans are still the second largest group in Northwest Indiana, growing 8 percent from 137,170 in 2000 to 147,936, or roughly 20 percent of the population, in 2010.
But Porter County best illustrated this ongoing trend, especially regarding the influx of African-Americans. Within that decade, the number of African-Americans in that county skyrocketed more than 250 percent.
“We very much like Portage,” said Lalita, a chatty and memorable woman who has an infectious smile. “I was looking for peace and quiet, and we found it here.”
“Portage has opened their arms to us,” said Larry, a soft-spoken man who keeps a more low profile. “We have developed a great network of friends here.”
Larry and Lalita have two children each from previous relationships, and five grandkids together. But you couldn’t tell from their young looks and youthful spirit.
Larry is the first full-time black employee for the city, working for the Portage Parks Department. He is a former worker for the Portage Township Trustee’s Office. Again, the first black employee there, too, as far I can tell. Lalita works as a paraprofessional educator at the Aspire Charter Academy in Gary.
The two have been friends since their teenage years, graduating in the same year during the 1970s from Roosevelt High School in Gary.
Larry still has family in Gary, and the couple attend church there, at St. Stephen’s Missionary Baptist Church where he is an ordained deacon and she an ordained minister.
One of Larry’s daughters also lives in Portage, while working at U.S. Steel in Gary.
Although Portage has welcomed them with open arms, and mostly open minds, Lalita has an eye on moving eastward again, possibly to a rural location with more property and space.
“I’m looking for more peace and quiet,” she said with a smile. “We just want a quality of life like anybody else.”
More region residents older, living alone
Ronne Teselsky has lost her oldest daughter, her youngest son and all of her hair to cancer treatments, but not her dream of becoming a book author in her golden years.
The 75-year-old Hobart woman was born in Chicago and moved to this region in the late ’70s. Her second husband died from cancer in 1988 and she’s been living alone ever since.
In more ways than one, this grandmother of 14 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren is still the poster child for the changing face of Northwest Indiana. She is an elderly widow who lives alone, reflecting a continuing shift to “older age cohorts.”
Traditional nuclear families are no longer the norm in the region. In 2010, 41 percent of our population was 45 years old or older, and 52 percent of our households were led by single parents or people living alone, such as Teselsky.
“I continued to work off and on until my physical health started giving out, and I finally had to retire,” said Teselsky, who wear a bandanna in public.
In retirement, she penned a book titled “Jacob Sutter,” (Outskirts Press, 2012) a psychological thriller about a boy genius with a heart of gold who is a serial killer of young children, beginning with his little sister.
“Before it is my time, I would like to see something good come from my writing as a legacy for my family,” she told me.
Teselsky, a mother of five whose hobby is making cloth dolls for her grandchildren, knows all too well the loss of loved ones. In 1997, her daughter committed suicide. In 2010, her son died from an acute asthma attack.
“I believe such losses in life only help make us more kind and understanding of others,” she said, echoing many other region residents her age. “I love life and believe it to be our most precious gift.”
rising across NWI
Esther and Eduardo Garcia left their East Chicago home for Portage just five months ago. They haven’t looked back since. Well, sort of.
They chose Portage, the county’s largest city, for multiple reasons. More challenging schools for their four children, proximity to bike trails, and a middle spot in between their jobs were all key factors.
Esther is a teacher at LaPorte High School. Eduardo is a welder for a railroad in Hammond. Porter County seemed a perfect fit.
Their migration from an urban Lake County city to a more rural Porter County city reflects the report’s key finding of a rapidly growing Latino population. Much of that growth is in Porter County, an attractive destination for a swelling number of Hispanic families since 2000.
In 2010, there were 103,286 Hispanics in the region, representing more than 13 percent of the overall population, an increase of 47 percent from 2000. But some county officials believe that number is much higher, accounting for largely uncounted illegal immigrants.
Esther and Eduardo were born and raised in East Chicago — she on the south side, he in the Harbor — and they looked at other communities to move. But a friend in Portage recommended the city and they found a home near a bike trail and the schools.
They also received guidance from the Porter County Hispanic Assembly, an organization created to help Latinos find needed resources locally instead of having to find it in Lake County or Chicago.
“It’s all about making connections for Hispanics in this county to educate, embrace and empower them,” said the group’s director, Victoria Salinas-Gresham.
The Garcias have two boys and two girls, the oldest three attending Portage High School, which has proved more challenging than their former East Chicago schools. This is a good thing in education, not a bad thing, especially for children of a teacher.
“Things are going very well here,” said Esther, who misses only one thing from East Chicago.
“My parents,” she said. “But I hope to pull them here soon.”
More NWI residents
Patti McLaughlin doesn’t mind living alone.
“I rather enjoy it, living alone has its perks,” explained the Merrillville woman who got divorced a dozen years ago.
In 2010, McLaughlin lost her job in Chicago and she now works part time in Lansing, Ill., while seeking a full-time gig somewhere. At age 58, she’s not thrilled being back in the job-search scene again or the dating scene for that matter.
“I really did not think I would be living alone at this age,” said McLaughlin, who has three children and five grandkids. “I have a few friends in my situation, but not that many.”
Such real-world circumstances reflect another rising demographic in Northwest Indiana over the past decade or so — we’re getting older as a people.
From 2000 to 2010, our region’s median age increased from 36.4 to 38.5 percent. By 2015, it is projected to be near 40, comparatively older than for the state and country.
Also, our region’s complexion is changing but not all that much.
While the white population here grew from 589,154 to nearly 600,000 from 2000 to 2012, this group now represents 78 percent of our total population, down 2 percentage points from 2000.
White baby boomers such as McLaughlin are still the norm, but with slightly fewer numbers overall.
“Sometimes I do miss having a spouse around, and I miss my kids,” she said. “But I keep in touch with them almost every day, and I do have my dog.”
Many of the people I spoke with in McLaughlin’s living situation spend most of their time with a dog, cat or bird. I don’t think there are any statistics on pet ownership in this region, but there should be.