By Steve Carlson Editor At the December, 2018 Board of Directors meeting for the Buffalo/Pepin County Literacy Alliance (BPLA), “transition” became an apt descriptor for a slate of changes that were set in motion, beginning a new era

By Steve Carlson
At the December, 2018 Board of Directors meeting for the Buffalo/Pepin County Literacy Alliance (BPLA), “transition” became an apt descriptor for a slate of changes that were set in motion, beginning a new era. The changes began with Steven “Yata” Peinovich stepping down as the President of the Board of Directors. Peinovich has had a long association with the BPLA. It began for him with the establishment of a library program in the Buffalo County Jail which he oversaw for one year before it became subsumed within the BPLA mission. Then after two years, Peinovich succeeded Bert Plucker as BPLA President, a position he has held for the last four years. Of his time leading the organization, Peinovich said, “I’ve really enjoyed teaming with people in Pepin and Buffalo Counties including teachers, social workers, criminal justice personnel, workforce resource development folks, the general public, and of course the people we’re serving.” He stated further, “It’s been very rewarding to hear the success stories over the years…” As for the latter he recounted such stories including one man who had been home schooled as a youth but unfortunately not well, but who came as an adult parent wanting to enhance his math and reading skills so he could in turn help his children. The man, who worked at a job six days each week, said Peinovich, would come in for tutoring on his only day off.
As a result of Peinovich stepping down, this caused a reshuffling of nearly all the officer positions for the BPLA. Chosen as the new President is Sarah Sabelko who is a teacher in the Durand-Arkansaw School District. Filling the office of Vice President is Marilyn Sinz, a retired teacher who received the BPLA Volunteer of the Year Award two years ago for her work tutoring for the BPLA. Taking over as Secretary is Rita Magno, who previously served as the BPLA Vice President and as a librarian in Alma. She takes over from Michelle Zagozen who served as the BPLA Secretary for four years while also serving as the Pupil Services Director for the Durand-Arkansaw School District. Aiding all of the transition with her years of experience will be Carol K. Bauer who stays on as the BPLA Treasurer, a position she has held for seven years since retiring from the Pepin County Clerk’s Office. Her association with literacy programs began with volunteering up in Dunn County before coming to the BPLA.
One other person who continues his association with the BPLA Board but nonetheless cannot go without recognition is a gentleman by the name of Pete Rahman. He is stepping down as a jail tutor volunteer after 15 years of service in that capacity. According to Peinovich, Rahman has worked with over 100 inmates during that time, and of those at least 50 received their General Education Diploma (GED).
Changes are also coming to the day to day leadership of the BPLA. Gwen Sweeny, who has served for the past three and one half years as the Director and Outreach Coordinator for the BPLA will take on a new role that focuses on a portion of her former duties, beginning January 1st. She will become the Coordinator of Academic Achievement Testing. This part time position coordinates the testing of prospective students which is used to determine which materials and emphases are most appropriate for them to begin learning. She will also conduct testing at six month intervals that helps students discover the progress they have made, which in turn is used to build student morale, encouraging them to continue pursuing advancement in the program.
Filling Sweeney’s former position as the BPLA Director and Outreach Coordinator, beginning January 1st will be Debra Fisher. Her duties will focus on the recruitment and aiding of tutors as well as making the necessary contacts to gain referrals of students for the program. To do the latter she will be engaging with the general public as well as with personnel in the jails of both Buffalo and Pepin Counties and with school districts in both counties. She also will oversee the BPLA English Language Learners program that has a lab that operates at the Alma Public Library.
Debra (Lauer) Fisher graduated from Arkansaw High School as one of the top ranking scholars and the DAR Good Citizen award winner. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Graceland University in Theatre and Speech Communication, Debra spent a few years in the St. Louis Missouri area working for the National Youth Development Foundation, specifically as a Program Director for Camp Personality. This camp took underprivileged African American children from the St. Louis area into rural camp settings to learn about the camps motto “See it, Believe it, Achieve it!” The camp focused on goal setting and rising above current economic conditions that many of the children encountered on a daily basis. “My first full season had a steep learning curve. Even with a three week intensive training course, I wasn’t prepared for the first few weeks of camps. I learned a lot, made some mistakes, learned more and by the second season had moved up the ranks from cabin counselor to Program Director,” said Fisher.
Fisher and her family moved back to the area in 1985, when she opened The Artistic Dance Academy in Durand. For the next decade she taught dance to local children, directed Drama at Durand High School and ran a successful photography business. In 1995 after an exceptionally cold winter the Fisher family moved to the Show Low Arizona area in the northeastern part of the state. Fisher said, “It is beautiful in the White Mountains, I have to admit that I do miss the mild climate”. During the next 19 years she would find herself immersed in various forms of education from home schooling her daughters to joining the ranks of teaching in Higher Education. Of her training in this regard she indicated, “Northland Pioneer College is a small, diverse two year college with multiple locations that serves an area about the size of West Virginia. This rural area includes three Native American Reservations. It was there that I pursued a Master’s Degree in Education with an emphasis on curriculum and instruction from the University of Phoenix. I was honored in July of 2008 to be chosen to deliver the graduation address at the University of Phoenix Stadium as the class representative.” While part of the Northland Pioneer College staff, Debra helped to create and promote a two week summer Children’s Theatre camp, which after her departure from the college in 2014, continues to this day. Another of her endeavors, the Pedal the Petrified annual bike tour through the Petrified National Forest near Holbrook Arizona, began in 2013, has helped to raise over $100,000 in scholarship funds for the college.
After empty nesting a few years, Fisher started looking for work in the Midwest. She said of this, “My daughters lived in Delaware and my parents here in Arkansaw. I landed the position of Technical Director and Theatre Designer for The Red Skelton Performing Arts Center on the Vincennes University Campus in Vincennes Indiana. Geographically equal distant from family.” While working at the University, she had the opportunity to meet and work with several ‘head liners’. As a road house the stage hosted entertainers Jimmie Osmond, Pat Boone, LeAnn Rimes, Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to name a few.
After purchasing the Little Plum Lutheran Church and Little Plum School house in December 2017, Fisher and her partner Rick Riggins relocated in February of 2018. Between remodeling the church and preserving the school house, Debra has been busy with substitute teaching and being a teacher’s aide at local school districts including Pepin, Alma, Durand and Plum City. Regarding her new responsibilities, Fisher remarked, “I am looking forward to the challenges of this position with the BPLA. I am grateful for Gwen Sweeny’s knowledge and her ability to train and guide me during the transition.”
Speaking about all of the changes and new faces leading the BPLA, Peinovich stated, “Every year we set new goals. This is going to be a transitional year.” He followed that immediately by saying, “The new folks will do great!” Peinovich was also quick to remind people that the services provided by the BPLA are free of charge to those in need. He explained the benefits of the program to be both for the students but also for the public at large. Specifically related to those served by the program during and after their incarceration, Peinovich noted that such individuals need to enhance their skills to further their employability. But he added that with this personal improvement for those coming through the judicial system comes a decrease in recidivism and an increase in public safety.
For more information about the program, its services, and opportunities to volunteer, one may go online to the BPLA website and to its Facebook page at To contact the BPLA directly, one may use their email address


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