- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

MARSHFIELD, Wis. (AP) - Gina Mattheisen was in college studying to be a social worker when she learned about a growing problem in Wisconsin: children left homeless when their parents were arrested for dealing or making drugs in their homes.

“It was gut-wrenching and I knew I needed to do something,” the 45-year-old Marshfield woman said.

That was in 2008, when Mattheisen was at a conference hosted by the Wisconsin Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, a division of the state’s Department of Justice, while studying for degrees in social work and criminal justice.

That same year, she founded something called Sweet Dreams with the goal of providing soft blankets, new pajamas and other supplies to Wood County children rescued from drug houses, USA Today Network-Wisconsin (http://mnhne.ws/1p7r9S2 ) reported.

“Methamphetamine production is a big drug problem, but what is even worse is that there are lots of toxic chemicals used to make meth and when there are children in that house, they need to be removed as soon as possible and bathed. Then what they were wearing needs to be destroyed because of the toxic chemicals.

“These little ones end up having nothing and add to that the trauma of being taken from their parents, it was heartbreaking to hear this,” Mattheisen said.

In the ensuing seven years, Sweet Dreams has taken on a life of its own. It now involves hundreds of people and provides between 2,000 to 3,000 packages a year to agencies across Wisconsin that rescue children. But it all still runs through Mattheisen’s email account, and is funded and driven entirely by volunteers who are moved to help fragile boys and girls.

“These children are living in homes that are in chaos,” said Cindy Giese, the state director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.”The parents aren’t parenting because they are busy using, dealing or manufacturing drugs. Sometimes the oldest child is parenting the younger kids. There are no bedtimes, they often aren’t in school, and sometimes they go without food.”

Mattheisen can’t change that. But she is determined to change what happens after police step in, after the parents are taken away in handcuffs and their children are left behind, alone and frightened.

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A couple of years ago, a 4-year-old boy was rescued from a home on the eastern side of the state where the parents were arrested for dealing drugs. The home was filthy, the boy was almost as dirty and there were no clean clothes for him to wear. His bed was a soiled mattress on the floor, Mattheisen said, and he had nothing.

“Despite the conditions, it was traumatic for him to be taken from his home, his parents,” Mattheisen said. “This was all he knew. And then he was given a Sweet Dreams pillow case and pulled out the pajamas.”

They were blue Spiderman pajamas with the vibrant red superhero emblazoned across the chest. They immediately became his most-treasured possession, she said.

“He never wanted to take them off,” Mattheisen said.

The same story is playing out across the state when kids are taken from similar homes. Sweet Dreams is a word-of-mouth effort with all the snuggly supplies donated by volunteers. When she needs donations, Mattheisen sends out emails to folks she knows who will donate things or organize donation drives through local 4-H clubs, church committees and other community organizations.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have the tremendous support from people who live in our communities,” Mattheisen said.

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Sweet Dreams began with a donation drive at the Marshfield Mall. Mattheisen put out the call hoping to get enough donations to help the few dozen children that land in the Wood County child protective services every year.

“I was overwhelmed, there was so much donated we had enough for 1,000 kids,” Mattheisen said.

In 2009, more donations poured in and Sweet Dreams gave pillowcases with pajamas and blankets to 3,500 children around the state. Coordinators of Drug Endangered Children programs send Mattheisen an email when their Sweet Dreams supplies begin to dwindle.

There is no Sweet Dreams website or 800 number. Most of the donations trickle in because people have donated previously and know how to reach her, or someone knows someone who knows that contact information for Mattheisen is on the Wisconsin Drug Endangered Children website.

Since its inception, Sweet Dreams has provided 10,000 packages to DEC programs statewide, she said.

“I never thought it would grow like this and whenever I need more donations, I send an email to my contacts and donations start to come in,” she said.

Organizing it all consumes a few hours of Mattheisen’s time every week. Donations arrive at her home or she makes arrangements to pick them up. She only asks that the products are new and each pillow case is labeled with its contents.

In the past 30 days, spontaneous donations to Sweet Dreams have come from a Marshfield 4-H club and an elementary school in Abbotsford. Another donation came from a Marshfield child who asked her friends to bring supplies for Sweet Dreams to her birthday celebration instead of presents.

That girl, Alliah Immerfall, said she was saddened when her mother told her about children taken from their homes because their parents were making or selling drugs. She took it upon herself to raise the donations.

When Immerfall was planning her eighth birthday party, she asked her friends to bring new pillowcases and things for children including pajamas, blankets, books and stuffed animals. “I wanted to give these kids something at a time when they might be scared or nervous, and to celebrate my birthday, my friends helped,” Immerfall said.

During the party each child filled pillow cases with supplies, resulting in 18 packages for Sweet Dreams.

“This is the kind of thing that just happens, and it is so gratifying,” Mattheisen said.

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DEC programs distribute the donations to children through county social workers who arrange for their care when police search drug houses and arrest drug dealers.

The Clark County Department of Social Services has distributed about five van-loads of pillowcase packages during the past few years, said Doug Krokstrom, a county social worker in child protective services. His daughter is a member of the 4-H club, the McMillan Mavericks, that recently donated to Sweet Dreams.

“There are so many children (in protective services) that do not have anything,” Krokstrom said. “It’s really nice to see the smiles on their faces when they receive new pajamas. It is priceless.”

Children are as eager to help Sweet Dreams as adults, said Lita Landwehr of Abbotsford, who has organized donation drives in Abbotsford.

“When I was describing what Sweet Dreams does for little children, my own kids were so sad that these children have nothing,” Landwehr said. “This is a project that really tugs at the heartstrings of everyone.”

No estimate for the number of children in protective custody across the state is available because each county tracks its own numbers, Giese said. But one thing Giese and other police officers are sure about is that Sweet Dreams helps ease the transition for children taken from a drug home.

“It’s traumatic when police break in and these kids are taken out of the home. When each child gets a pillowcase, its a reminder that someone cares about them,” said Sgt. Scott Krogh, head of Racine County’s Metro Drug Unit.

Krogh’s been on many drug searches and witnessed the deplorable living conditions of children who have no clean clothes, little food and absent parents.

“When the kids get their blankets, they really latch on to them,” he said. “Those blankets mean the world to the little kids.”

The folks in central Wisconsin are providing a tremendous service to the entire state, Giese said.

“Gina had a good idea,” Giese said. “It just shows how one person can get something started and it ends up making a big difference.”

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Information from: News-Herald Media, http://www.marshfieldnewsherald.com

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