In the midst of what seems to be an ocean of negative news and strife, the 7 Rivers Alliance and the River Valley Media Group have something positive to share. 

The winners of our annual Rising Stars Under 40 event were announced Wednesday in a virtual ceremony and with stories, photos and videos on

The 7 Rivers Alliance — a regional economic development group — sought nominations from throughout the region from young men and women who are making a difference. This year we have selected 28 recipients from three states. 

 “The stories of these exceptional people are inspiring and show how fortunate we are to have them living and working in our communities,” said Chris Hardie, CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance. “They are true leaders in their workplaces and communities.”

 “All of us at the La Crosse Tribune and River Valley Media Group are thrilled to partner with Chris and the 7 River’s Alliance to bring this important program to you,” said Sean Burke, publisher of the La Crosse Tribune and President of River Valley Media Group. “We’re so proud of these young people, their perseverance, and the leadership promise they hold for our region. The future is them and it certainly is bright.”

 “Selecting winners from all of the outstanding nominations is not an easy task — everyone nominated clearly makes a difference in their community,” Hardie said. “These are men and women in our region whose endeavors enrich our lives and raise the bar for all of us.”

Katie Aspenson, Onalaska, Planning Manager for City of Onalaska

Katie Aspenson

Katie believes her family instilled a strong work-ethic with a conviction to see tasks through to completion and to always give credit and recognize accomplishments. She says sometimes leaders work behind the scenes to help others make difficult choices. Additionally Katie has led many successful planning projects include Onalaska’s Comprehensive Plan update, the State Road 16 Corridor Redevelopment Study and recent redevelopment of Onalaska’s downtown and the Great River Landing.  She says organization is crucial to staying on top of priorities, meeting deadlines, and having opportunities to take on extra projects. Take the time to find a system that works for you and run with it!

Kim Bauer, Onalaska, HR vice president, Altra Federal Credit Union

Kim Bauer

Kim is busy being the human resources vice president for 450 employees at Altra Federal Credit Union. That’s enough work in a normal year. But in the past six months Kim has been the main point person for COVID policies, procedures and questions – handling calls or questions day or night. Yet she does with a mix of professionalism and empathy wanting every employee to succeed in their personal and professional lives. Kim said she wants to make a difference in peoples’ lives, even in small ways or ways they may not even realize.  Her advice is to lead by example.  Be fearless and look for opportunities that push you outside of your comfort zone, as that’s where you find great growth and what you’re capable of. 

Taylor Brehmer, Mindoro, Farmington Fire Department

Taylor Brehmer

Volunteering is an important theme that shows up in so many of the recipients honored here tonight. Taylor understands that giving back to your community raises the bar for everyone. In addition to his full time job as a mechanic for the city of La Crosse, Taylor is a certified level 2 firefighter and assistant vehicle maintenance officer with the Farmington Volunteer Fire Department. He’s also an emergency medical technician with the Farmington Emergency Medical Team. Taylor says that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. But the most important thing to remember is wherever you end up in your career; always remember to make time for your family.

Kim Breidenbach, Trempealeau, Gundersen Tri-County physician

Kim Breidenbach

Dr. Kim Breidenbach is a Gundersen family medicine physician who joined the system in 2014 working at Gundersen Tri-County in Whitehall. Kim has worked hard to understand the challenges and needs of the rural population, serving as vice chief medical officer at Tri-County. She has led multiple successful initiatives to improve the quality of care given to patients with disease states such as diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure, as well as efforts to decrease opioid use.  She also has been a leader to identify and address unmet social needs such as food insecurity, housing availability, transportation needs and community education. “I am proud to bear witness to the caring and compassion that occurs every day when we provide medical care to people who are often family, friends, and neighbors,” Kim says. As far as leadership: “I’ve gravitated toward leadership because I’m not often content to let things be as they are. I look at situations with two questions in mind: What is here for me to learn? How can this be better?”

Ryan John Crain Sr., Sparta, motivational speaker

Ryan John Crain

Sometimes it seems like life gives us more than we handle, but don’t tell that Ryan John. He grew up with his father in prison and lived in and out of foster care because of instability, alcohol abuse and fighting at home. Both his parents died of cancer and he had facial reconstructive surgery twice after a brutal beating from a stranger. But Ryan John found his calling while a student at UW-La Crosse, creating the bylaws for Lambda Chi Alpha and adding a clause that has led to over 500+ hours of community service in the 7 Rivers Region. He enjoys motivational speaking for at risk youth because he had some great mentors who have believed in him. He tells others to find those mentors and learn from them. “Stay in the present and never pass on an opportunity to help others. “

Jeff Cram, Tomah, sales representative, Meca Sportswear

Jeff Cram

Jeff’s community involvement list is impressive: Tomah Lions Club, Tomah Chamber and Visitor’s Center board member, Knights of Columbus and alderperson for the city of Tomah. He is also the national sales representative at Meca Sportswear. When COVID-19 hit, Jeff used his technology talents to help a local church stream their services and also helped the city do the same. He was also the driving force behind Downtown Thursday nights, promoting Tomah businesses.  Jeff says he learned the importance of hard work and community involvement from his father – a former law enforcement officer and city alderperson. His advice to younger leaders: “It’s never too early to get involved. Too often young people may feel they can’t make a difference however it is my belief that communities are always searching for the next generation of leadership.”

Dustin Cunningham, Holmen, financial planner, Trust Point

Dustin Cunningham

Balancing professional success with community involvement and family is a challenge for all of us. Dustin, or Duke as he is called, shows us how this can be done. He is a certified financial planner and regional team lead in development with Trust Point. He is a charter member of the Hilltopper Rotary Club, helping establish the club in Onalaska. He helps raise money for various community groups, serves on the board of directors for Gundersen Medical Foundation and he assisted businesses through the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce to help them understand the financial impacts of the CARES Act. Dustin says: “I’ve always believed that together everyone achieves more.  This is not only evident during the work day, but also in important in the community.  I’ve been blessed every day and I enjoy being part of a community and company who takes pride in helping others. “

Jacob Erickson, Trempealeau, sports medicine physician Mayo Clinic

Jacob Erickson

Jacob is a sports medicine physician with Mayo Clinic Health System who found a medical need in the community and founded the Sports Medicine Department at the Onalaska campus – which he says is his greatest professional achievement to date.  Jacob serves as the UW-L athletic medical director, working to provide event coverage and to evaluate athlete injuries and illness. Jacob has watched the sports medicine program grow and impact the community. And he still finds time to participate in sports himself – including golfing, mountain biking, snowboarding and beer tasting. His advice:  “Be a frontlines leader. Grind every day. Do the little things every day that support your cause. Have a vision and go after it. There likely will be no cookbook or road map telling you how to get there.”

Andrew Jagim, Holmen, sports medicine Mayo Clinic

Andrew Jagim

Another outstanding leader in sports medicine is Andrew, the director of sports medicine research with the Mayo Clinic Health System. Andrew won the Nutritional Research Award from the National Strength & Conditioning Association this past summer. Andrew gives talks and lectures to not just athletes but also to others on the basics of weight loss and how to live a healthy lifestyle. He is passionate about the La Crosse area and encourages young families to thrive here. His advice is to work with others and get your name out there. “Word travels fast in this community and working with others is an effective way to inform others on how you can help them and to become an effective leader.”

Amanda Jones, La Crosse, training support, Logistics Health

Amanda Jones

Amanda has an important role at Logistics Health – training support coordinator to help bring new hires up to speed. Understanding program and procedure is vital to getting the job done.  She also shines in her community involvement, which she learned from her parents. “I’ve grown up knowing that if you’re able to help out somewhere, you should,” she said. A member of the La Crosse Jaycees, Amanda helps with Toys for Tots, Rotary Lights, Riverfest and many other events, including blood drives held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amanda says: “I want the community I live in to be the best it can be, and that’s only possible by getting involved and helping anywhere needed.”

Andy Kelleher, New Albin, executive director, Main Street Lansing

Andy Kelleher

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been felt across the 7 Rivers Region, particularly among our smaller main street businesses. When the pandemic hit, Andy took action. As executive director of Main Street Lansing, Andy recorded and produced a series of 10 videos showcasing businesses and the people in Lansing. So far Lansing has not lost a business because of the pandemic.  He also volunteers at his church, the New Albin Public Library board, coordinates a holiday food drive and serves on the Eastern Iowa Tourism Association and the Alllamakee County Housing Study Task Force.  For Andy, it’s as simple as giving back to the community where he was raised. “I stepped up because I believe economic development and an improved quality of life are the keys to a healthy and long-lasting community. I have the skills and experience to help, and I want to do everything I can to make sure my home thrives.”

Mao Kong, Onalaska, nurse, Gundersen Health System

Mao Kong

Mao’s nomination perhaps says it best. “Mao is a unique leader of her generation.” Born in a Thailand refugee camp, Mao immigrated to the U.S. at age 9 and became a U.S. citizen at age 18. Mao, a nurse for Gundersen Health System, has extensive experience working with people of different cultures, working on domestic violence prevention as a multicultural coordinator with police and courts. In 2006, Mao received the Building a Foundation for Our Community Award and she works with the Greater La Crosse Area Diversity Council to improve diversity and inclusion in the community. Her story inspires others and last year Mao was the keynote speaker at Western Technical College’s commencement ceremony and was awarded the 2019 WTC Distinguished Alumni Award. Her children inspire her, Mao says. “I work hard every day to be a good role model so they don’t have to look far to help guide them in their lives. “

 Josh Mansee, La Crosse, corporate controller, First Supply

Josh Mansee

Originally hailing from the Twin Cities area, Josh Mansee is a 2010 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse where he received his Bachelors of Science degree in Accounting and Finance. He stayed in the region and is now the corporate controller at First Supply. La Crosse may be his home, but Josh is man of the world, having visited all 7 continents. His involvement in Rotary shows his involvement at home and abroad. He helped raise $12,000 to purchase school books for girls in Afghanistan and bringing clean to kids in Mexico. His focus, he says: is on doing the right thing. “Success does not come from big splashes; it does come from consistent, purposeful, and collaborative work to help those around us.”

Erin Millard, Stoddard, pediatric psychologist, Gundersen Health

Erin Millard

When people – especially children – lack access to mental health services, the consequences are deep and broad, adversely affecting individuals, families, schools, and communities. It puts the futures of our most vulnerable in jeopardy. Erin, a pediatric psychologist at Gundersen Health Center, knew the community needed to train more mental health professionals. So she developed a training program from scratch – and we’re now seeing the results. Erin said she knew adding training programs locally would increase the likelihood that we could get qualified psychologist candidates to the La Crosse area, potentially keep them here and help the community. Her work is the result of support, advice and mentorship from across the country. Her advice: “Be persistent and don’t give up.”

Garrick Olerud, Westby, real estate broker and business owner

Garrick Olerud

There’s an old saying that if you want something done, give it someone who is busy. That certainly applies to Garrick, a real estate broker, auctioneer and small business owner. Garrick started NextHome Prime Real Estate 2019 – which has grown to seven agents and two employees. Garrick is also co-owner of the Great American Pancake Company, based out of Cashton and works as an auctioneer in his father’s business.  Garrick serves on the Vernon County Board, is treasurer of the Westby Snowflake Ski Club among other community involvement. For Garrick, actions speak more loudly than words. He says: “I feel a person needs to be involved to be able to really make a difference—an idea alone will not get it done. Action must accompany words for change to happen.”

Kate Peak, Onalaska, owner of Applause Dance Academy

Kate Peak

Business owners have been forced to make many changes in light of COVID-19. That’s true at Applause Dance Academy, purchased by Kate in 2017. Kate – a certified master dance educator — now holds dance classes over Zoom – even visiting her students to make sure they had the technology to participate. Before COVID, Kate brought her therapy dog to schools and nursing homes.  For Kate, as a teacher, her excitement grows with each student and each class. She says: “Find what you love and share it. Learn how to grow yourself and never stop learning. I will continue to spread my love for dance with the Coulee Region as long as I am able.”

 Stephanie Pipkin, Black River Falls, owner of Black River Falls Cleaning Services

Stephanie Pipkin

Entrepreneurs, take note. When you see a need in the market, research it. You may have just created the idea for a business. That’s exactly what Stephanie did in 2019 when she started Black River Falls Cleaning Services – at the age of 23. The business has grown rapidly with more employees and customers, but with community service at the forefront. The business donates to local nonprofits and also provides free household cleanings to people going through cancer. When the pandemic first hit, the business offered free cleanings to other businesses who were shut down. Stephanie said she was inspired by her parents and offers this advice: “It’s OK to be afraid, but it is not OK to let that fear stop you from trying something. “

Brandi Jo Pollard-Jones, Wonewoc, business owner

Brandi Jo Pollard-Jones

When Brandi Jo had an opportunity to purchase a historic 100-year-old feed mill in Wonewoc in 2007, she jumped in. The result was Beyond Boundaries Canoe, Kayak and Bike and eventually a lodging facility – Old Talg’s Feed Mill. Along the way came community involvement with local clubs and organizations, service as village trustee and other community events. Leadership, Brandi Jo says, is the result of working with others on positive changes. “You should love where you live,” she says. “Engaging in the community helps you get to know its history, its people, and contribute to the fun there is to be had….right where you live.”

Nicholas Ragner, La Crosse, communications at UW-La Crosse

Nick Ragner

There’s a common thread to many of our recipients here tonight – giving back to your community. Nick is a great example of that, having grown up in La Crosse, attending Logan High School and UW-La Crosse. After three years in broadcast sports, Nick worked for the Salvation Army, helping to ways to raise money to support basic needs in the under-served La Crosse Community. He still serves on the Salvation Army advisory board. Now employed in communications at UW-L, Nick is a Rotarian who helped coordinate a special banquet at Rotary Lights featuring more than 400 people. The motivation for Nick is simple. “I love this place and I love people. It doesn’t take a lot to make an impact. Everything you do – from a few dollars to a few minutes of time – can be the difference.”

Janneke Sobeck, Winona, CEO Winona Family YMCA

Janneke Sobeck

Growing up with parents who worked with the World Health Organization and the International Federation of the Red Cross, Janneke met her future husband on an Alaskan cruise and moved to Winona in 2010. She was the director of Live Well Winona, a nonprofit with a mission to engage the community in a culture of wellness before she took over as CEO of the Winona Family YMCA in March 2019. Janneke has jump-started a stagnant $22 million building campaign and is getting ready to open a new facility – in the midst of a pandemic. Janneke says her community involvement is based on choosing to spend time doing purposeful activities that make her community better. Her advice to young leaders is to not quit, but also not be afraid to ask for help. And one other thing: “I also believe that kindness and positivity go a long way in this world.”

Andrew Steger, Onalaska, relationship manager, Trust Point

Andrew Steger

Andrew, who grew up on a family farm in Prairie du Chien, lives the advice he once received from a friend:  “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” That concept illustrates his professional life as a relationship manager at Trust Point to his community involvement as a board member of Downtown Main Street Inc., a volunteer with the Outdoor Recreation Alliance and the Viterbo Mentorship Program. It’s a combination of professional and personal involvement that allows him to explore the beauty of the Driftless Area and make it better for others – all with a sense of humility, being proactive and listening to others. “Treat everyone as an equal, and you’ll both reap insurmountable benefits,” he says.

Abigail Stockham, La Crosse, radiation oncologist, Mayo Clinic

Abigail Stockham

Working with patients diagnosed with cancer requires equal parts medical expert and compassionate caregiver. That’s the description used to nominate Abigail, a radiation oncologist in the cancer center at Mayo Clinic in La Crosse. An Iowa native, Abigail was a nursing assistant before attending medical school and specializing in oncology. She joined Mayo Clinic in 2014 she is an assistant professor in radiation oncology and an accomplished researcher. She also served on the board of GROW La Crosse, which connects children with healthy food and nature, and is involved with other community events and organizations. “We are all empowered to make a difference in the lives of others, in our community, and in our world.  Connecting with and serving others, continuous growth and development, and collaboratively making the world a better place have always been core values – likely as a result of my upbringing,” Abigail says.

Jenna Theler, La Crosse, Wisconsin corrections supervisor

Jenna Theler

Jenna became involved in corrections because her mother said the most important thing a person can do during their life is help others. As Jenna says, probation and parole agents have the unique role of being able to help people who have made poor choices improve their lives and keep the community safe at the same time. A La Crosse native, Jenna now supervises 10 probation and parole agents. She has developed and implemented programs for women and men in the criminal justice system but quickly credits results to work from her entire team. “I feel the proudest of the work we do when one of our clients who has been in the system for a long time finally gets to live the happy, pro-social life they deserve,” Jenna says. Her advice: “Be unapologetically yourself… the more I am genuine and true to myself, the more I am strengthened, rewarded and able give back to others.”

Lynsee Thompson, La Crosse, manager CleanSlate Centers

Lynsee Thompson

Lynsee says her life has come full circle being president of the YWCA La Crosse board – she was once a program participant. Overcoming personal challenges with addiction, Lynsee is the manager of CleanSlate Centers, La Crosse, an outpatient addiction program. She has volunteered at the La Crosse County Jail, Children’s Miracle Network and Coulee Recovery Center. Lynsee speaks publicly about her experience with substance abuse and mentors other women in recovery. She’s also pursuing her MBA. Lynsee’s advice: “Don’t be afraid of “failure.”  I have learned some of my biggest life lessons because things didn’t go as I hoped or I expected.”

Keonte Turner, La Crosse, community and family youth director, La Crosse Family Y

Keonte Turner

Keonte came to La Crosse from Milwaukee as a Viterbo University student 10 years ago. He is now engaged in a mission to make it a better community for everyone who calls it home. Keonte has worked with families and children in schools, libraries, ministry, crisis counseling and is now Community Family and Youth Director at the Y. It’s the connection he makes with families and youth, what he calls the “ah ha” moment when they trust in him to be their advocate that inspires him. “No amount of notoriety, praise or awards could make more proud,” Keonte says. His community engagement and participation – including being board member and treasure for the La Crosse School Board – is broad and deep. His advice to young leaders: “You are stronger than you know. Work to live, don’t live to work.”

Allison Wagner, Caledonia, community economic development

Allison Wagner

Allison grew up in southeast Minnesota on a small dairy farm near Freeburg. She returned to the region in 2012 and has invested time and energy in improving the region’s economy. Through her role as a small cities development program specialist for Community and Economic Development Associates and Houston County Economic Development Director, Allison helps small towns grow and prosper. She helped secure an $800,000 grant for Caledonia to be used for downtown rehabilitation and development and promotes the region’s agriculture industry. “I am inspired by others around me,” Allison says. “This region has many hardworking, caring, talented, and creative residents who give back to the community. It is an honor to work alongside and learn from them.”

Dallas Werner, Holmen, owner First American Roofing and Siding

Dallas Werner

Dallas is an Army National Guard veteran who faced a big decision in 2010 when his father died. At the age of 27, he took over First American Roofing and Siding, a company his father owned – even though he had only a basic knowledge of the business operations. Dallas said it was important to him and the legacy of his father to grow the business and provide a means of living for others. Dallas has been involved with the La Crosse Area Builders Association and his business has donated labor for 15 Habitat for Humanity roofing projects. His advice for young leaders: “Never sacrifice your integrity. Think about your long term vision and goals and write them down.”

 Reva Witte, Melrose, HR manager, Regal Beloit Corp, Black River Falls

Reva Witte

Reva is human resources manager for Regal Beloit Corporation in Black River Falls, but understands successful relationships extend far outside the walls of the factory and into the community. “I find a sense of fulfillment by taking an active role in improving my workplace, my community, and my own life,” Reva says. Regal has been named the Black River Area Chamber of Commerce business of the year and was named an exemplary employer by the state for its commitment to hiring people with disabilities. Reva is a religious education teacher, volunteers for Jackson County Interfaith Caregivers, the Trempealeau County Fair Ambassador program and Miss Ettrick and Miss Galesville organizations. She says: “ I have a passion for helping in the communities I was raised in, and want to foster opportunities for young women to build their confidence.”