For the third year, the River Valley Media Group and the 7 Rivers Alliance are honoring people younger than 40 for making a positive difference in our part of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Here — in their own words — we find out what makes them such an asset to our area.

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Bio: Darrek D. Orwig holds an undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in history and earned his Master of Arts in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design. His career has included working a number of years in the heritage tourism field, and until recently he provided leadership to a large community’s Main Street program as its executive director. He currently serves as the economic development and tourism coordinator for Trempealeau County, in addition to teaching a graduate level course on architectural preservation at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. His second book, Somewhere Over There: The Letters, Diary, and Artwork of a World War I Corporal, was published in the spring of 2016 by the University of Oklahoma Press and is the edited wartime papers of Iowa soldier and artist correspondent Francis H. Webster.

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Bio: Michelle has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Luther College and a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Minnesota. She has worked as a Regional Planner for Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) since May of 2016, assisting with community smart planning, strategic planning, transportation planning, hazard mitigation planning, city code updates, and GIS mapping and analysis. Prior to her employment at UERPC Michelle worked as a Planner and Graduate Landscape Architect for NAC, Inc., a consulting firm in the Twin Cities Area, served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota, and was a Research Fellow with the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center.

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Bio: Born in Oconomowoc, Wis.; graduated from Oconomowoc High School in 2003. Enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 2003. Graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (B.A. English) in 2008. Graduated from the University of St. Thomas (Masters in Business Communication) in 2014

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Bio: Juan was born and raised in the Chicagoland area to Mexican immigrants, the second of five children. As a young boy, he learned the importance of education and worker’s rights. After graduating from Viterbo University in 2001, he started his teaching career in rural, southwest Wisconsin. Juan became involved in the teacher’s union and became President of the South West Education Association at the age of 24. After teaching for six years, he became the Associate Executive Director of the Racine Education UniServ Council, representing teachers and educational assistants in the Racine Unified School District. After that, Juan became the Assistant Executive Director of the Kenosha Education Association, and was hired as the Executive Director prior to moving to La Crosse to work at Western Technical College. Juan currently serves as the Associate Dean-General Studies, overseeing the Learning Commons (providing library and tutoring services) and adjunct faculty in the General Studies division. Juan earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics Education, a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership, and a Certificate in Ethical Leadership from Viterbo University. He is also currently pursuing a Doctor of Education degree in Developmental Education Administration from Sam Houston State University (Texas). Juan also holds a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction license as a grades 6-12 mathematics teacher and P-12 principal, and is a State of Wisconsin Notary Public. Juan has a passion for education, especially in the areas of developmental education and mathematics, and enjoys reading, cooking, traveling and spending time with his family whenever given the chance.

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Bio: Born in Racine, Wis., and adopted by Katie and Steve Fleis as an infant. Grew up in Holmen, graduated from Holmen High School in 1999. Attended college, worked for Menards for a few years. I’ve worked with Fleis Insurance for 16 years. Married to my wonderful wife for 14 years, and have two sons. I enjoy traveling, skiing, scuba diving, and watching Wisconsin sports.

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Bio: Having grown up on a farm outside of Caledonia, Minn.,, Amanda (Wray) Ninneman moved to New York City after college and worked in graphic design. She slowly made her way back to the Midwest, where she eventually met Jeremiah Ninneman in Minneapolis. Jeremiah grew up in central Minnesota, studied painting, and then made his home in Minneapolis working in the grocery industry, ending up a buyer for Whole Foods Market. In 2014, Amanda and Jeremiah married and moved to Caledonia, with plans to open a business in an effort to help revitalize Caledonia's downtown. After an extensive renovation project, The Wired Rooster coffee shop opened in June of 2015, in a historic brick building on Caledonia's Main Street. Amanda continues to do graphic design projects, working with local businesses, organizations and municipalities. Together Jeremiah and Amanda manage the coffee shop, and raise their family of two children.

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Bio: Adam Sonntag has been the City Administrator for the City of Hillsboro, WI since 2011. Sonntag holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Minnesota State University – Mankato and a Bachelor’s Degree from Ripon College. Sonntag is a regional coordinator and executive board member for the Wisconsin City/County Management Association and a member of the ICMA. He also is a member of the League of WI Municipalities Lobbying group, the Monroe/Vernon/Crawford Growth Fund Board, and numerous other local boards in Hillsboro. Sonntag was raised in Sheboygan, WI.

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Bio: I was born in Skokie, Ill., which is a suburb just north of Chicago. After high school I went to college at UW-La Crosse where I was a double major in History and Political Science. While attending college, I met my future wife, Rachel Karpinsky. My wife and I attended law school at Marquette University Law School. After graduating, I worked in private practice for approximately a year. In 2011, I moved back to La Crosse where I was the judicial law clerk and small claims mediator for the five judges of La Crosse County. I knew I wanted to focus my practice on personal injury and workers’ compensation as I wanted to help injured people. After a year of clerking in La Crosse County, I joined Fitzpatrick, Skemp & Associates, LLC in 2012. I became partner at Fitzpatrick, Skemp & Associates in 2015.

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Bio: Alicia Suessmith serves as the Vice President of People Operations for Dynamic Lifecycle Innovations. Dynamic is a global industry leader with location in Nashville, TN, Minneapolis, MN, and Onalaska, WI providing environmentally sustainable solutions for e-waste recycling, precious metal recovery, legislative compliance, and asset management. At Dynamic, Alicia and her team work to ensure that Dynamic has the best people, is a great place to work, and has a strong talent pipeline to support the business’ continued growth. Alicia holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Management with a Human Resources emphasis and maintains certification as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) through the HR Certification Institute. Alicia lives in Winona with her husband Dan. Dan & Alicia are known to be adventurous and always up for trying anything new. They enjoy boating, traveling, snowboarding, performance driving, hiking, fishing, hunting, and spending as much time as possible with friends and family.

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Bio: Amanda Hedlund was born and raised in Minneapolis, the daughter of a third-generation Swedish father and a Cajun mother. Her earliest memories are filled with dances and music festivals, long trips into the Boundary Waters, and books that sparked dreams of adventure. After completing an English degree at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Amanda went on to travel the country before immersing herself in a career of service. For 10 years she served the Twin Cities metro community fundraising for health-care innovation and disaster response at Fairview Foundation, the American Red Cross, and Neighborhood HealthSource. Amanda is happy to have relocated to beautiful Winona with her husband and two children, where she now serves her new community as a Rotarian and as Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Winona-Fillmore Counties.

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Bio: I have two wonderful parents who raised me in Nelson, WI. I attended K-12 school at Alma Area Schools in Alma, WI. After finishing high school, I moved to La Crosse and attended UW-La Crosse with a major in pre-med and biomedical science with a chemistry minor. Following completion of my undergraduate degree, I began medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. I then matched into an Anesthesiology residency at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Following residency, I completed a Pain Medicine fellowship to specialize in treating patients with painful disorders. My husband, David, and I moved back to the La Crosse area in 2012 where I began working at Gundersen as a Pain Medicine physician. I am the current department chair for the Pain Medicine department at Gundersen and serve on several committees throughout the organization.

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Bio: Caroline oversees over $2 million annually in community development funding and programming for the City of La Crosse. Prior to this position, she worked in Washington DC for an international non-profit Freedom House. She holds a master's degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, New York. She has worked at the City of La Crosse for five years. Caroline grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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