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General Philanthropy

As defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, philanthropy is goodwill to fellow members of the human race. In Rockford, IL, there is a myriad of examples of such philanthropic lineage that resonates to this day.

The Community Foundation of Northern Illinois (CFNIL) perhaps best exemplifies the collaborative spirit of giving back in the Rockford Region. CFNIL, founded in 1953 as a public charity, serves four counties—Boone, Ogle, Stephenson, and Winnebago—and is headquartered in Rockford. At present day, CFNIL has amassed more than $85 million in assets and more than 400 individual funds.

CFNIL operates both grant and scholarship programs for nonprofits. With 90 percent of its funds permanently endowed, a vast majority of these grants and scholarships are earmarked eternally for the four counties that CFNIL serves. Since its founding, more than $60 million in grants have been awarded.

All funds donated to CFNIL are governed by an individual agreement between the donor and CFNIL. In addition to grants and scholarships, CFNIL also has helped launch and support several special initiatives, including Nothern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence (NICNE) and In Youth We Trust.

United Way of Rock River Valley (United Way RRV) first made its presence felt in the Rockford Region in 1919, when it was then known as the Social Service Federation. Since its inception and a few name changes along the way, United Way RRV has been exemplary in advancing the common good in Winnebago and Boone Counties with a focus on education, income and health.

United Way of Rock River Valley—which proudly supports 89 local programs that impact one in four people— is joined by several other organizations as a leader in local philanthropy, including Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, the Junior League of Rockford and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

AFP, a volunteer committee of the region’s experts in nonprofit fundraising, annually leads the celebration of National Philanthropy Day. Each November, the Rockford Region celebrates the individuals and organizations who give back. At this annual AFP banquet, six awards are given out locally for outstanding individuals, organizations, volunteers (for fundraising and service), future philanthropists, and youth service.

Of the many distinguished award winners, James Keeling, an attorney, and Sunil Puri, a real estate developer, continue to give back. The two teamed up to lead the development of the Keeling-Puri Peace Plaza on the northeast side of town. The Keeling-Puri Peace Plaza (established 2002), an anchor on the 14.9-mile Perryville Recreation Path, features 48 flags, represents 60 languages and symbolizes the celebration of enduring world peace.

In October 2015, Puri announced a $2.25 million donation to the construction of the Puri Family YMCA on the southeast side of town. Puri owns First Midwest Group (FMG), a real estate firm with a 30-year track record of successful development regionally, nationally and globally.

In late 2013, Tom Gendron, CEO of Woodward, announced the Transform Rockford (TR) initiative. The goal of TR, a long-term volunteer effort inclusive of all Rockfordians, is to implement changes that will craft Rockford as a top 25 community nationally by 2025.

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Transform Rockford

On the evening of Nov. 14, 2013, more than 1,300 people gathered at the Coronado Performing Arts Center in downtown Rockford, IL. There was a buzz around town—and there had been for a long time—about what the citizens of Rockford could do to affect positive change for the community.

Tom Gendron is the CEO of Woodward, an industrial aerospace and energy company founded in Rockford in 1870. Alongside fellow community leaders, Gendron announced Transform Rockford (TR) on that night at the Coronado, highlighting the Case for Change—in other words, some longstanding poor social, economic and environmental marks afflicting Rockford.

Transform Rockford is a nonprofit driven by volunteers with the mission of creating and implementing a collaborative community plan that will correct these poor marks and lift Rockford to a top 25 community nationally by the year 2025. The six-part process includes: analysis and a case for change; developing the vision; defining the strategy; developing an implementation plan; implementing initiatives and measuring effectiveness; and reviewing and updating as necessary.

Gendron had directed a cultural transformation in business, and he desired to apply that successful model to the Rockford Region. Gendron appointed Mike Schablaske as Transform Rockford’s executive director, and the organization has made significant strides since its inception.

“I had been looking to do something closer to my community and my faith,” recalled Schablaske, who has a finance background that included a stint at Woodward. “On March 10, 2013, I received a voicemail from Tom (Gendron). He mentioned he was undertaking a charitable project in Rockford and wanted to gauge my interest in helping. The rest, as they say, is history.”

After rolling out the Case for Change, more than 3,000 people shared feedback thereafter at various Community Visioning Sessions throughout the region. From those Visioning Sessions, the TR committee leads developed a Vision Statement and Impact Statements.

“We often say be a thermostat, not just a thermometer,” Schablaske said. “We’re changing the climate to get things done on a broad scale that positively affects all backgrounds in our community.”

The initiative strives to improve all facets of life in Rockford. As outlined in the Vision Statement, TR’s goal for Rockford is a community recognized as one of the very best in which to live and one that embraces diversity, a crime-free culture and educational excellence for all. The region will sustain a superior quality of life and will maintain a robust and innovative economy.

The Impact Statements delve into specific areas for improvement and include: safety; healthy lifestyles; education; economy and jobs; planning; living the brand; funding and alignment; quality; physical infrastructure; families and neighborhoods; leadership and youth; arts and recreation; and unity, pride and culture.

A critical component of this collective philanthropic project is the notion of shared values. When citizens decide to commit their volunteer efforts to TR, they also agree to uphold these values as a foundation for true change. Those nine shared values are inclusion, caring, respect, transparency, trustworthiness, unity, ideation, responsibility and interconnectedness.

“Our hope is that Transform Rockford is a catalyst for the collaborative hard work that the community envisioned and accomplished,” Schablaske said.

Salvation Army Rockford

Founded nationally in 1865, The Salvation Army has long been a leader in Rockford as well. The organization continues to make its presence felt in various capacities, including its thrift stores, community centers and social service programs throughout the region.

Salvation Army Rockford serves the needs of children and families, including local programming in within the realms of daycare, tutoring, sports leagues and camps to help build character in the community.
“We’ve been in Rockford for nearly 125 years, providing for people are down and out,” said Major Steven Merritt, a fourth generation officer at Salvation Army Rockford. “We take care of those with a physical need, but also those who need support for a holistic outlook on life.”

Salvation Army’s social service offerings include food pantries, a safe space and counseling for domestic abuse, and employment assistance. Friday Night Patrol is a volunteer-driven program that provides meals to the homeless in Rockford, while other programs are centered on disaster relief due.

The Rockford offices also offer rehabilitative programs to adults. The Adult Drug and Alcohol Rehab program provides spiritual, emotional and social assistance that spans a six-month commitment after an intake assessment. Additionally, the Women’s Restorative Justice Program (WRJP) is geared specifically toward homeless women and children. The program treats those in recovery from a drug and/or alcohol addiction and have a criminal record. Those admitted to the treatment program are provided an apartment with all necessary living resources (food, shelter) for up to two years on the road back to self-sufficience.

In keeping consistent with its religious roots—Salvation Army originated to meet human needs in the name of Jesus Christ—Salvation Army Rockford also offers places and programs to pray, worship and practice one’s faith.
“We were there immediately after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina,” Merritt expanded. “Our intent is to be there for people in a time of need, without asking for anything in return.”

Junior League of Rockford

Celebrating its 85th anniversary in 2015, the Junior League of Rockford (JLR) has been a mainstay in giving back to the Rockford Region for generations. JLR is represented by some of the region’s most charitable and educational women’s leaders.

Led by president Andrea Kuzniar, JLR’s 200-plus members continue to make significant contributions purely through volunteer efforts. The group holds nine meetings annually and is divided into four councils: membership, community, fund development and finance. JLR also features a separate Project/Fundraiser Research Committee, which develops a long-term project that is eventually turned over to the community.

Slated for 2013-16, the current project is titled Backpack Buddies. This program is centered on combating childhood hunger and promoting healthy eating habits at affordable and accessible rates for youth and families throughout the region.
“One of the best parts about Junior League is having the community’s input,” said Kuzniar, an Air Force veteran and six-year JLR member. “We look to see where the needs are and collaborate to implement a plan that improves our community.”

Over the years, JLR has developed a variety of projects dating back to 1930. The Ken-Rock Community Center was formed by JLR in its first year of existence. Other JLR project examples include Discovery Center Museum, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Bright Side Adult Day Center and Youth Services Network, among many others.

“Junior League of Rockford has made me realize how much positive change can come about simply by asking, ‘How can I help?’”, said Jen Williamson, a member since 2013. “The women in Junior League take that question and run with it.”

Since 1987, JRL has won a combined 14 local, regional and national awards for its outstanding service. Most recently, JLR was tabbed the 2014 local recipient of the Crusader Community Health Spirit of Caring Award.

“I have taken that spirit of helping others, and have given my time to volunteering at other organizations where I see a need, even if it’s just an hour or two a month,” added Williamson. “It’s something I hope to continue throughout my life, and I give Junior League credit for that.”
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