It’s one thing to talk about making a difference. It’s another to actually live it. And we Midwesterners, well, we’re the type to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This year, we introduce you to 25 individuals who exemplify the reasons this region is a great place to live, work and play.
Click a name to read about a specific individual, or begin scrolling.
Russell Johansson, President/Owner, Specialty Screw Corp.
There’s a lot more to Specialty Screw Corp. than meets the eye. The modern Rockford production center where cold-formed parts and fasteners are manufactured for the automotive and other industries incorporates technological advances in manufacturing, energy and waste conservation.
For Russell Johansson, president and owner, environmentalism is a natural extension of his upbringing.
“I grew up in a rural environment, in a subdivision close to a golf course and creek,” Johansson recalls. “As a child, I spent my days exploring the outdoors. It was a carefree time with no worries. Mom would just say to be back home in time for lunch.”
His home state, Michigan, was an early adopter of environmental preservation efforts, instituting recycling, alternative energy and conservation laws while developing its tourism industry around clean water and pristine outdoor attractions.
After his father purchased Specialty Screw in 1975, Johansson joined the company. He became president and owner in 1993.
Johansson has invested in equipment, continuous improvement and employee training. And, he’s has focused relentlessly on the conservation of energy, land and water – efforts which have earned him local, state, and national awards.
“We installed an automated system to maximize our energy utilization,” Johansson says. “We captured heat sources from compressors and used them to heat the building, upgraded lighting for more efficiency, and we recycle waste oil and all process scrap. We also introduced technological systems to significantly reduce paper usage.”
Johansson led an effort in 1996 to take five unused acres of company property and create a native Illinois prairie, now home to wildflowers and wildlife. This prairie helps to divert millions of gallons of rainfall from the storm sewer.
“By making Specialty more cost-effective, we are not only saving a lot of green but we are working to improve the quality of life in the Rockford community,” says Johansson. “The changes we made are also making the workplace more comfortable and appealing to our employees. What has motivated me for decades is preserving, to the best of my ability, our God-given natural resources for future generations.” – TR
Donna Mann, Director of Continuing Professional Education, Northern Illinois University Outreach
Volunteerism is important to Donna Mann. The faithful community servant believes it’s especially important in a small community like Oregon, Ill.
“I learned about volunteerism through 4-H and at my church in Macomb [Ill.], and I attribute much of my career success to those experiences,” Mann says. “I don’t have a lot of money to make large financial contributions for various projects, but I can give my time and skills to try to help support and better my community.”
Mann has been involved with many grassroots initiatives in Oregon. She serves on the Oregon Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors and is Co-Chair of Oregon’s Rockin’ River Fest, a June event that features live entertainment, family fun, games and other events on the riverfront.
She’s served as president of Oregon’s Autumn on Parade festival for 10 years and sits on the organizing board for the Oregon Trail Days festival.
Mann is also working with Oregon Community School District 220 to launch a Rural Crowd Fund project, a new mechanism that will enable the school to fundraise for various projects.
“Success in a small community is volunteer driven,” Mann says. “When it comes to getting things done and community betterment, it’s volunteers that make the difference.”
In addition to her volunteer efforts, Mann oversees the continuing professional education program at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Ill. With more than 30 courses covering human resources, facility management, project management, and finance and accounting, this program serves more than 500 working professionals.
From her home office in Oregon, Mann hires and trains instructors, builds curriculum and schedules courses.
Prior to joining NIU, Mann spent 19 years as an adviser at the University of Illinois Extension office in Oregon. She also spent six years as a community leadership and volunteerism educator at the U of I extension office in Freeport.
Her days may be busy, but Mann believes it’s all worthwhile.
“There are days when I work 18 hours,” Mann says with a laugh. “Being busy is what keeps things interesting.” – JP
Austin Edmondson, Youth Minister, St. Rita’s Catholic Church
Austin Edmondson’s teen years were rife with struggles.
“That’s why I have a heart for youth, especially those who deal with difficult home lives, depression or difficult backgrounds,” he says.
The youth minister at St. Rita’s Catholic Church, in Rockford, welcomes all children, teens and young adults, regardless of their faith background, to partake in the age-appropriate programs he organizes. With help from volunteers, Edmondson creates a safe, fun environment where youth can build friendships, have fun and grow in their own spiritual lives.
“It’s so important that youth have a positive atmosphere to go to,” Edmondson says. “They also need adults who they can trust. I need to be an authentic listener and a relatable voice.”
Edmondson says he felt called to enter youth ministry while attending Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kan. During his second year at the school, when he was studying youth ministry and theology, he dropped out to become a missionary with an organization called Reach, where he planned retreats for middle school and high school students.
After spending a year in Montana and another year in Washington state, Edmondson’s missionary work lead to Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, where he organized large events and led small Bible studies for college students.
In June 2015, he moved to Rockford to start a full-time position as youth minister at St. Rita’s. He has two main goals in sight.
“First, my goal is to give a home to youth,” Edmondson says. “But my other main goal is to give parents the tools and resources they need to do my job in their own homes. So, essentially, I try to make my job unnecessary.”
Edmondson has organized mud volleyball games, paint wars and bonfires, as well as Bible studies, prayer services and volunteer opportunities. He also works on marketing, fundraising and administrative tasks during his office hours.
“I know a good youth ministry program requires lots of extra hours with typically a low income,” Edmondson says. “But it’s about showing youth that they have value. I help give them the confidence they need to go out into the world and be good citizens to the people around them.” – LG
Rob Funderburg, Chairman, Alpine Bank
When Rob Funderburg learned of his father’s illness in 1990, he demitted from business school at Northwestern University and came straight home to Rockford. Helping out with Alpine Bank and Trust, the family business, seemed much more important than finishing his postgraduate education.
“I earned the ‘M’ in MBA,” he jokes. “I’m the middle of three brothers, and all three of us dropped what we were doing to come home. We agreed that it would be best if only one of us was responsible for the business, and when it ended up being me, I told them to tap me on the shoulder if ever it wasn’t working out.”
But 27 years later, chairman Funderburg has led Alpine Bank to become the largest community bank serving Winnebago, Boone and DeKalb counties. His employees, customers and shareholders are equally important to him. Providing a professional, fair, honest and fun working environment is just as vital as providing a safe place for customers to save and for shareholders to invest.
Funderburg believes in being generous to his fellow citizens. He’s served on numerous community boards supporting education, social services, the arts and economic development. Through his generosity, Alpine Bank supports 350 organizations with $950,000 per year.
“I look for opportunities where my time and energy can be well spent,” Funderburg says. “A community bank is as healthy as the community it serves. No one at Alpine Bank is required to volunteer for anything, but employees have the encouragement and flexibility to get involved in the community, and many of them become leaders in the various nonprofits and organizations they’re involved with. It’s all part of an effort to make Rockford a better place.”
Funderburg enjoys spending time with his wife and two young-adult children. He’s also outdoors as much as possible.
“You probably wouldn’t see me as a person who is skilled with a chainsaw or a Bobcat, but I am quite competent with both,” he grins. “But both personally and professionally, I try to have a positive impact. It’s important for me to work alongside my employees, customers and fellow community members to make the Rock River Valley a better place to live.” – LG
Carla Redd, Assistant Deputy Chief, Rockford Police Department
Carla Redd is making history at the Rockford Police Department.
Last summer, she was named the department’s first African-American female assistant deputy chief. The year before that, she became the department’s first black female lieutenant.
“It’s definitely an honor to be in that position,” says Redd, a 1989 graduate of West High School. “Overall, I believe I owe the community so much more, and I owe a duty to make sure that law enforcement, in its position, is being held to the required standards.”
Redd serves as the commander for District 1, on Rockford’s west side, where she oversees the department personnel who work in that part of town.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University, Redd landed a job as a substance abuse counselor before becoming a probation officer.
Several of her friends who worked in the department persuaded Redd to join the force in 1998.
Redd worked her way through the ranks from patrol to the community services unit. Over the next few years, she passed a series of tests and climbed the ranks to become an investigator, a sergeant and a lieutenant.
Early in her career, there were men who questioned her ability to work in the profession.
“Any doubt that they had, I alleviated that early on,” Redd says. “I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself; it was just a matter of being able to do the job and handle myself.”
Being a lifelong resident of Rockford has given Redd more of a connection to the community.
“I may be able to identify some of the issues residents experience, because I may have gone through some of the same ones growing up,” she says.
She further builds bridges with her community by spending her free time speaking with civic organizations, churches and other groups.
“Across the board, I was raised under the umbrella that you can do anything you set your mind to, and the position I’m in right now definitely says that,” she says. – JP
Rev. Kimberly Moeller, Pastor, Swiss United Church of Christ
The Rev. Kim Moeller didn’t always want to be a minister. In fact, when she was in college, the Ohio native was a biology pre-med major.
After graduation, she worked as a marketing manager and meeting organizer, and eventually became executive director for a prestigious tech firm in Silicon Valley. Preaching behind a pulpit never crossed her mind.
However, after years of planning meetings and events for tech company CEO’s, she felt pulled toward ministry.
She attended Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., and worked as a small-group leader at a megachurch. Later, she took classes at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., where she graduated with a master’s degree in divinity.
Moeller then worked with a nonprofit group that helped homeless people.
When the pastoral position at Swiss United Church of Christ (UCC), in New Glarus, Wis., opened up, Moeller felt a strong attraction to the congregation. She knew she was on the right road after she met with the church’s pastoral search committee.
“I have never felt so sure that I am in the place God has called me to be,” says Moeller, who accepted the role in June 2016. She believes her former career path prepared her well for this new role in the church.
“Every Sunday morning is like a meeting,” she says. “There are many people and pieces involved, and good preparation is critical.”
Moeller is inspired by Jesus’ call to his followers to love and care for others. Inspiration also comes from her congregation. It’s the people, she says, and not the beautiful 117 year-old sanctuary, that makes the church special.
“We are a multi-generational church and a very active and caring group,” she says. “I’m inspired by people who live out their faith in action to reflect God’s light and love.”
Swiss UCC partners with many local service groups and supports children’s education in some of the most impoverished areas of El Salvador.
“Our church lives out Jesus’ call for us to care for those in need,” she says, “and it’s exciting to see.” – RM
Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green, Regional Dean, University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford
D r. Alex Stagnaro-Green dreamed of heading a small school where he could know every student, impact institutional culture and improve the community’s well-being.
When the opportunity arose, he jumped at the chance to become dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford.
“In Rockford, I feel like we can have an impact and make a difference,” he says. “We can get to know people in the community and open the doors of the campus.”
Since his arrival in 2014, Stagnaro-Green has, in many ways, enhanced the learning environment for this school’s 175 medical students, 60 medical biotechnology students, and faculty and staff members.
In addition to opening a fitness center and establishing new student programs, Stagnaro-Green has expanded the focus of the school’s research program, including with the addition of a regenerative medicine lab.
A graduate of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a practicing internist and endocrinologist, Stagnaro-Green is a strong advocate of lifelong learning. He earned a master’s degree in health professions education from University of Illinois-Chicago in 2005. He’s working on a degree in health care administration, which he’s expecting to complete this December.
For much of his career, Stagnaro-Green has been an international expert in the link between thyroid disease and pregnancy.
He still treats patients, but he also lectures in places around the globe, including places like India, Finland and Spain. He makes time to teach third-year students, too.
“That is one of the highlights of my week,” he says.
Monthly seminars are just one way the community is connecting with the medical school. Stagnaro-Green is excited about the ties he’s made with city leaders, public schools and numerous organizations – not to mention local physicians who teach here.
“They want to work with our school. They want to be part of something that’s vibrant,” Stagnaro-Green says. “We’re bringing in dollars to this community, we’re bringing in talented individuals and we’re contributing to the reputation of our region’s medical field. That makes a difference.” – CL
Ashley Sarver, Urban planner, Gary W. Anderson Architects
It takes some imagination to re-envision a building that’s covered in sawdust and raccoon prints. But Ashley Sarver has plenty of imagination.
Sarver, 29, joined the staff of Gary W. Anderson Architects about two years ago as an urban planner. She grew up in Durand and earned degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and U of I at Chicago.
During college, she studied abroad in Spain and worked as an au pair in the northern city of Bilbao. The industrial port city used to be dirty and smoggy, but was undergoing a transformation, one that reminded Sarver of Rockford.
“It was important for me to come back to where I’m from,” Sarver says.
Sarver currently is working with Anderson on a plan for the redevelopment of Keith Creek, a project Anderson started in 2002. The goal then was to create a linear park, but plans dropped off the radar. Sarver is helping to revitalize the plan, in spite of barriers.
Patience is a virtue in urban planning. Sarver has toured many of Rockford’s vacant downtown buildings for potential projects. The successful ones take a long time to come to fruition.
“I love all of it – trying to imagine what (the space) could be, how to make the deal happen, what funding we can get, who we should bring in as partners,” Sarver says. “You’re forced to be patient. We have clients who come in and talk about the possibilities a lot, but we also meet a lot of people whose projects never happen.”
Sarver’s work outside the office is also helping to reimagine her community. She’s passionate about the Purpose Built Communities initiative, which aims to improve standards of living through education, housing and wellness. She co-leads the Planning team for Transform Rockford and is working on a group called I Bike Rockford that combines the region’s cycling groups.
Sarver encourages other young people to have a little imagination when looking at the Rockford region.
“Consider the impact you could have,” she says. “You could get involved at any level here, if you just try to make a change. That’s harder to do in larger cities. And here, you’re impacting where you grew up and changing it for the better.” – MW
Larry Williams, Executive Director, Freeport Housing Authority
At 19 years old, Larry Williams had enough of living in Freeport’s public housing. Determined to get his mother into a better home, he got a job at a local call center and then launched a call center of his own. People took notice. He was invited onto the Freeport Housing Authority’s board, and in 2009 was named its executive director.
Now, he’s helping his neighbors – not just FHA residents – to realize a pathway out of poverty. In his mind, public housing is a hand up, not a handout.
“I think plenty of people start out poor, but it’s the mindsets you have to impact,” he says. “I set out to change mindsets. If you can change the way people think, that’s 80 percent of the battle. If I think I can be better, if I think I can be successful, the rest is easy.”
Combining his entrepreneurial skills and his passion for helping people, Williams is raising hopes through his Workforce Development Institute, a classroom program held at FHA that teaches the sorts of “soft skills” that employers most desire.
“My experience is that it’s my soft skills that made me successful; I knew how to communicate and dress well and show up on time, and stay late,” Williams says. “I didn’t see anything in the community that really addressed the issue the way it needed to be addressed.”
Since 2014, WDI has graduated 150 people; 90 percent of them have retained a permanent job or pathway toward promotion. “I think a lot of them suffered from low self-esteem and not being confident in their ability to succeed,” Williams says. “To see that change is one of the best rewards for me.”
Williams is also a leader in Collaborate Freeport, a group that’s promoting the city’s assets and transforming its sore spots.
Williams recently launched Conversations Over Pizza, which draws together community members, local leaders and law enforcement for a “Sunday dinner” dialogue.
“What makes Conversations Over Pizza different from other conversations is that we leave with a better understanding, but we also leave with solutions that we can implement,” he says.
Williams is eager to empower those around him.
“I think human capital is the best resource any city or community has,” he says. “Without humans, there is no community. – CL
Dr. Bill Gorski, CEO, SwedishAmerican Health System
For more than 40 years, Rockford’s SwedishAmerican Health System has been led by physicians. When Dr. Bill Gorski retires this summer, he’ll hand the reins to a fellow physician.
“To have someone who knows what it’s like to take care of people and to see and be with patients – that really has an impact on how decisions are made here,” says Gorski.
The suburban Chicago native arrived in Rockford in 1977 with his wife, Sue, to serve his medical residency at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford. He became a family practice physician with Five Points Family Medicine, and in 1994, when the practice was sold to Swedes, Gorski was tapped to lead the nascent Swedish American Medical Group, which now employs nearly 170 physicians at more than 30 clinics.
“It wasn’t like I wanted to get away from practicing medicine, but when [then-CEO] Dr. Robert Klint asked me to take the role, I thought, ‘He needs help. He needs a doctor to lead this new group. Why should I say no to that?’” Gorski recalls.
Gorski became SwedishAmerican’s chief medical officer in 2000 and succeeded Klint as CEO in 2001. The past 16 years have been busy for the health system, as it’s expanded its Midtown campus and revitalized the neighborhood, built a heart hospital, established a Belvidere hospital, built a cancer center and merged with UW Health. Despite his many accomplishments, Gorski says he’s most inspired by patients.
“The best part of this job is to get a letter from a patient who talks about their experience and how wonderful it was here,” he says. “They’ll write a letter and go into detail: ‘It was this nurse or this doctor, and I was afraid but they took away my fear. This was a critical juncture in my life, and SwedishAmerican was there to help me through it.’”
Outside Swedes, Gorski works with United Way and has been part of Transform Rockford and Alignment Rockford since their earliest days. His four children grew up locally, and though they no longer live here, they, too, recognize the city’s transformation.
“They go, ‘This is Rockford? This isn’t the Rockford I remember,’” Gorski says. “That’s good. Change takes time.”
Come July, Gorski plans to spend more time with family while providing guidance to his successor, Dr. Michael Born. – CL
Joyce Berg, Founder, The Angel Museum
Two angels in an antique store window started it all.
While vacationing in Florida in 1976, Joyce Berg and her husband, Lowell, spotted the angels in a window and purchased them on a whim.
The couple began collecting other angels, and in time, they made a formal hobby of it.
“It soon became a passion for us; it was something we enjoyed doing together,” Berg says.
By the time the collection had grown to 10,000 angels, small tour groups began to visit the Bergs’ home, where angels were on display in every room. When people started asking about bus tours, Berg knew she had to share the collection on a larger scale.
The idea for the Angel Museum was born in 1994.
“We found an old church in our town,” says Berg. “We drove by the old church and the doors were open, the sun was shining. It was a lightbulb moment.”
The historic Beloit church had been closed since 1988 and was set to be demolished, though local parishioners were trying to save it. The Bergs reached out to them and, after a lot of red tape, opened the museum in 1998.
Berg continued adding to the collection, even after the museum opened and after Lowell died in 2003.
“If you have something in your heart, you keep doing it,” Berg says.
She still occasionally buys angels when she’s out shopping – if they “speak” to her.
The collection now has more than 14,000 pieces. Surprisingly, there are no duplicates.
Visitors will find angels of all shapes and sizes, made from a variety of mediums, including pasta and wood. Television personality Oprah Winfrey donated more than 600 African-American angels, all of which are on display at the Beloit museum.
Berg says she’s inspired by the faces of the angels; they make her feel good. She finds pleasure in inspiring others.
“My hope is that people come in and can feel this peace, love and kindness,” she says. “And when they leave, they have joy in their hearts and smiles on their faces. We need that in our world today.” –RM
Amanda Mehl, Boone County Public Health Administrator
The State of Illinois charges local health departments with overseeing four areas: clean drinking water, private septic systems, safe food served at food establishments, and diagnosis and tracking for more than 70 communicable diseases.
As Boone County’s public health administrator, Amanda Mehl supervises these services for nearly 54,000 residents. With a bachelor’s degree in public health, Mehl started her career in 2006 at the Winnebago County Health Department before earning her master’s degree in 2010. Four years later, Mehl earned a degree in registered nursing at Rock Valley College. She joined Boone County’s department as director of personal health services, and in 2016 she accepted the position of administrator.
Mehl describes the department as a dedicated team effort, robust despite its small size.
“We are responsible for identifying, following up and reporting such infectious diseases as foodborne illnesses, mosquito-borne illness such as West Nile and Zika virus, tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases including syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia,” Mehl says.
Recognizing a gap in disease control, evaluation and patient education, Mehl helped to open a walk-in Sexually Transmited Infections (STI) clinic in 2013. Because of the sensitivity of STI-related incidents, Mehl says, many people, especially young people, do not want family doctors or insurance agencies to know. Those who visit the walk-in clinic can receive risk screenings and testing options on an affordable payment system.
Because it’s the only option of its kind in the county, the clinic enables the health department to better track and report occurrences of disease.
“The clinic is able to target at-risk residents in a welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere where they are seen by a public health nurse,” Mehl says.
The health department’s work often is augmented through partnerships with school districts, policymakers, public officials, healthcare providers, first responders and other agencies.
“This model of partnership allows us to share resources and share solutions that benefit all citizens of Boone County,” Mehl says. – TR
Judy Gustafson, Academies Coach, (Rockford) Jefferson High School
Judy Gustafson dreamed that, when she retired, she’d start a school that met all students where they were – academically and emotionally – and focused on post-graduate life.
Gustafson is now living that dream, though not as she might have predicted. In 2012, she left the private school where she’d worked for 13 years and returned to public education, where she’d begun her career in 1974. She soon joined Rockford’s Jefferson High School to pilot the academies learning model. Now established at all four of Rockford’s public high schools, the academies model uses small learning communities to help students explore their future plans, regardless of whether they’re headed to college, to a trade school, to an apprenticeship or directly to the workforce.
“We knew we could better meet students’ needs, fulfill their life goals, gather around them in a small learning community and give them focused intervention, when needed,” Gustafson says.
Students start in the freshman academy, then commit to a career-focused academy for their final three years. Each school-within-a-school focuses on broad career trajectories, including business, arts and information technology; engineering, manufacturing and industrial trades; human and public services; and health sciences.
In some courses, students can earn college credits or industry certifications.
Community leaders also increase students’ real-world career exposure through activities such as classroom presentations and project assistance, a career expo and visits to businesses.
The ultimate goal, says Gustafson, is to impart the value of self-discovery.
“If they don’t know how to explore themselves, the opportunities available and the requirements to get there, they won’t know where they’re going and how to get there,” she says. “How many kids graduate from high school and even college with degrees but no career focus?”
This may not be the endpoint she imagined, but Gustafson isn’t looking back.
“Is it fulfilling that goal of where I wanted to be? Absolutely,” she says. “Will there always be more to do? This job is like yeast – it just keeps rising.” – CL
Li Arellano, Mayor of Dixon, Ill.
Although he’s Dixon’s sitting mayor, Li Arellano Jr. hardly ever sits still.
He owns two Jimmy John’s restaurants, is the majority owner of a frozen yogurt company in Rock Falls, Ill., and owns a property leasing company.
Arellano also is a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, where he’s served two combat tours in Iraq. He currently serves as a squad leader in the 485th Engineer Company, based in Machesney Park, Ill.
And, he welcomed his third child in February.
“Despite my busy schedule, I’ve been able to balance the time constraints of all of it,” Arellano says.
Arellano was elected Dixon’s first Hispanic mayor in 2015.
“None of that mattered to the Dixon voters,” Arellano says. “They only cared about electing the best man for the job.”
Even as he serves the people of Dixon from City Hall, Arellano could be called to serve his country, on the battlefield, at a moment’s notice.
“The city comes first for me, unless an actual conflict happens where I can get called up to serve,” Arellano says. “I will either resign or take a leave.”
Arellano’s time in City Hall comes during a critical transition as the city moves from a commissioner form of government to a managerial form. The change is part of a broader series of reforms happening in Dixon, as the city cleans up from former city comptroller Rita Crundwell, who was convicted of siphoning nearly $54 million from the city over two decades. She received a 19-year prison sentence in 2013.
“If none of us knew of the damage being done behind the scenes, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to run for mayor,” Arellano says. “Leaders step up when there is a need, and there was certainty a need in the city.”
The well-being of his children keeps Arellano’s battery charged each day.
“I don’t think I’d be nearly as interested in planning for the future and setting up the city for future success if it was only for me,” Arellano says. “I’m more interested in giving back and prepping the future for my daughters and my son.” – JP
Britney Lindgren, Co-Owner, Rockford Art Deli
Britney Lindgren has always had positive thoughts of downtown Rockford. For years, the Byron native enjoyed making Rockford-centric prints with her boyfriend, Jarrod Hennis. In 2008, Lindgren joined the screen-printing business he started, Pirate Ninja Print Shop. The popularity of their creations quickly outgrew the vendor booths at local markets.
“We saw the potential in starting a storefront downtown,” Lindgren says. “It was a vision-come-true to establish Rockford Art Deli in 2011. Every year we’ve evolved, and every year we see the brand grow up.”
Today, the print shop and Art Deli operate cohesively at 402 E. State St., where people find T-shirts, mugs, hats, bags and more – all including original designs that positively support Rockford.
With a degree in graphic design, Lindgren produces concepts for new designs before collaborating with other artists in making those ideas come to life.
Her idea to start a line of 815 products, inspired by the area’s telephone area code, has led to a dozen designs that have been particularly successful.
“That’s the idea we build on the most,” Lindgren says. “I love the 815 shirts because it’s a way to outwardly show pride for the region. There’s a sense of belonging that comes with having an 815 phone number, like you’re in a large but exclusive club with the whole of northern Illinois.”
Shirts featuring the Rockford Peaches and Cubbies baseball team have also been popular. Everything at Rockford Art Deli is original, hand-printed and made in the U.S.
“That’s really important to us,” Lindgren says. “We’re not in this for the money. RAD belongs to anyone with a passion for Rockford. Everyone who works here shares a love for this city. It’s at the core of our business.”
In her free time, Lindgren volunteers with iRead, a program through United Way where she reads and builds relationships with children in Kindergarten through grade 3. She also volunteers as marketing director for Ignite, an organization for young professionals.
“I just really want people to love Rockford the way I do,” Lindgren says. – LG
Teresa Beach-Shelow, President, Superior Joining Technologies
Manufacturing doesn’t have to be a male-dominated world, and Teresa Beach-Shelow is proof. The majority owner of Superior Joining Technologies, in Rockford, entered the industry 20 years ago with her husband and business partner, Thom Shelow, a career welder who started the business in the family garage.
Today, the couple’s company is FAA-certified with expertise in precision welding, nondestructive testing and laser processes, with an emphasis in the aerospace industry. The company is also nurturing the next generation of manufacturers, setting aside a large room in its 55,000 square-foot facility for school robotics teams and an Northern Illinois University auto racing team.
“A certain type of manufacturing has gone away, but the highly skilled, highly technical, really fun stuff, such as creating, solving problems, innovating – all of that is still very much a part of our local manufacturing community,” Beach-Shelow says.
The Shelows sponsor several of these teams and actively serve on advisory boards for groups like Fabricators & Manufacturers Association and Technology & Manufacturing Association.
Beach-Shelow is also a founding member of Women of Today’s Manufacturing, a Rockford group that encourages local women in the field by promoting education for current and aspiring tradeswomen.
Thirteen years ago, Beach-Shelow was one of the creators of manufacturing camps, as she and other leaders sought a way to engage youngsters – especially girls – in the fields of robotics, engineering and manufacturing.
“I think we’ve found through Lego robotics teams and our high school robotics teams that girls who participate in these clubs love the design, and they’re well-suited for problem solving and leading teams,” she says. “They’re moving into engineering classes and that kind of thing.”
Workers of the future are taking note. Beach-Shelow’s bubbly fifth-grade granddaughter is often spotted hanging around the business and she’s been highly engaged in her Rockford school’s robotics league.
“She already looks at me and asks, ‘When can I be company president?’” says Beach-Shelow. – CL
Lori Berkes-Nelson, Director, Rockford Park District Foundation
For Lori Berkes-Nelson, the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. It’s three-quarters full.
“I try always to see the positive things in life,” she says. “There are many good reasons to be encouraged about Rockford.”
About 2.5 years ago, Berkes-Nelson was named the head of the park district’s fundraising arm. It’s no easy task securing precious donations, but one made easier given the district’s national reputation for excellent programs, services and facilities. Since 1979, the Foundation has raised more than $47 million to support the park district’s operations.
“Recreation for all to enjoy, playgrounds, camps, lessons, boat docks, youth sports, Nicholas Conservatory – none of it would be possible without our committed donors,” she says.
She’s especially excited about new projects taking shape this year, including work on the Sinnissippi Rose and Perennial Gardens, Levings Lake, Silent Sports Trails, and the Kiwanis Club of Rockford Children’s Exploration Station along the Riverfront.
“We’re connecting people’s passions with a need in the community,” she says. “When we’re talking to donors or working on a campaign, it’s not about fulfilling a goal or a number; it’s helping people to be part of something special. People are passionate about the park district. We’re in business to serve the citizens. It’s the thread that drives everything we do.”
The DeKalb native moved to Rockford via Santa Fe, N.M., in 1987. Berkes-Nelson says prior work experiences – Rosecrance, Golden Apple Foundation, among others – have helped shape her career.
“I really believe every experience I’ve had has led me to the one I have now,” she says. “I’ve been given this great blessing over the years to experience these organizations and the community that supports them. I was led to be where I am right now, doing what I do for this community. I can’t imagine it any other way.”
And that includes her family – husband Layne and their two teenage children, Maddie, 19, and Forrest, 17.
“My family, faith and work are central to who I am,” she says. “I dig being with my family and exploring new opportunities together. I get joy out of the small things in life.” – PA
Troy Flynn, Executive Director, RAVE, and General Manager for Coronado Performing Arts Center, BMO Harris Bank Center, Rockford Ice Hogs and Davis Park.
Troy Flynn’s job is to entertain you. As the head of Rockford’s largest entertainment venues, Flynn is responsible for bringing to town some of the top acts – from rock shows to truck pulls. And he’s good at it.
Flynn leads the Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment Authority, which manages the BMO Harris Bank Center, Coronado Performing Arts Center, Davis Park and the Rockford IceHogs.
The Westchester, Penn., native fell into the arena business by accident. He went to college to study environmental politics, but to support himself he worked nights setting up stages, ice rinks and basketball courts for nearby arenas. Eventually he started managing crews.
“I caught the entertainment bug early,” he says.
Over the years, Flynn moved up to the big leagues, working at the Wells Fargo Arena and the Spectrum, home to the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers. In 2008, he moved abroad for a year to open Spaladium, a venue in Croatia that hosted the World Handball Championship.
“I always considered travel a passion, but it teaches you lessons about culture,” he says. “It was an interesting experience. I learned how to be flexible. It was a hallmark experience in my career.”
When his work was finished, Flynn returned to the States and took a job with the Mullens Center in Amherst, Mass., and then the Prudential Center, in Newark N.J., home to the New Jersey Devils. That’s when Rockford came calling.
“When I look at what Rockford has to offer, I see a huge growth opportunity,” he says. “It’s an eclectic culture with the IceHogs and Blackhawks partnership. And the Coronado is a gorgeous gem. There are many communities that don’t have what Rockford does.”
In his free time, Flynn enjoys spending time with his wife, Lauren, and their two children, daughter Harper, 4, and son Shepard, 15 months.
After traveling the world, Flynn says he’s ready to put down some roots.
“We’re happy with our experience here,” he says. “I would love to be here as long as Rockford wants us.” – PA
Mike Webb, Former Director, Starlight Theatre
Rockford native Mike Webb doesn’t need to be in New York City to satisfy his cravings for high-caliber theater. The former artistic director of Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre has always discovered great talent in his own backyard.
“It’s been an honor to serve the community,” he says. “It’s been 31 years and 32 seasons, and each show is like a child to me.”
When Webb was in high school, Starlight performances were held on the RVC lawn – a large contrast from today’s impressive outdoor Bengt Sjostrom Theatre, which Webb fought to get built. He spent his teenage years building and painting sets, not realizing how far Starlight would take him.
After attending Rockford University for undergraduate studies and Michigan State University for graduate school, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Theater and Directing, Webb returned home and staged more than 7,400 shows in the course of his career. His retirement in December 2016 follows many accomplishments.
“Karl Jacobs, who was the college president when I first started, told me that my goal was to get as many people as possible to attend our performances,” Webb says. “I really took that to heart.”
Under Webb’s instruction, Starlight grew its subscriber base to more than 40,000 people. He was the first person to ever get an amateur license for “Phantom of the Opera,” obtaining the blessing directly from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
During winter months, he’d work indoors at RVC’s Studio Theatre, a venue for more serious shows. Through his tenure, Webb directed all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and 22 of Agatha Christie’s 25 productions.
In reflection of a long, fruitful career, Webb says one of his greatest accomplishments was writing his own play, inspired by his daughter, Kaitlin, who has struggled with Rett syndrome her entire life.
“I’ve had success writing other plays in the past, but this one meant the most to me,” he says.
Now enjoying his retirement, Webb is busy writing and beginning this new chapter in his life. – LG
Jodi Miller, Freeport Alderwoman/Co-Owner, Union Dairy
Jodi Miller is the kind of person who embraces a challenge. Naturally, when presented with an opportunity to take part in the revitalization of her hometown of Freeport, she jumped in with both feet.
“I love this city,” Miller says. “As a homeowner and business owner, and with children and grandchildren here, my entire life is invested in Freeport. I want to see Freeport grow and prosper once again.”
By putting into practice lessons she has learned as manager and co-owner of The Union Dairy, she hopes to help the city see the same kind of growth her iconic ice cream parlor has experienced.
“Over the past 12 years, we’ve increased our revenue over 600 percent and have doubled the number of our employees; we now have over 40 teenagers on the payroll,” Miller says. “That success has given me the perseverance and foresight to lead our community with the same passion and great customer service experience as our customers receive at the Union Dairy.”
Miller has served as Freeport’s Fourth Ward alderman since 2015, and she serves as a Steering Committee Member for Collaborate Freeport, a branding initiative to improve the region. Miller also is a member of the Business Advocacy Committee with the local Chamber of Commerce.
Additionally, she’s served as a committee member for the Tour De Freeport bike ride and sits on a committee for Freeport Downtown Development Foundation River District. And, she’s a core member of the grassroots effort to bring Freeport a multi-plex facility that would include a racetrack.
“I want Freeport to be that city that can offer the younger generation the same kind of opportunities that my generation had while also embracing and preserving our community’s rich history and traditions,” Miller says.
With her finger on the pulse of so many projects, Miller is impressed with the growing enthusiasm for Freeport’s future.
“There’s a new vision and a new energy that’s igniting within the people of Freeport, causing greater involvement and positive attitudes,” she says. “Freeport is full of smart, creative people and my hope is to see all working together for its success.” – EH
Barbara Williams, Conservationist
There are plenty of people willing to the save the cute and furry animals of the world, but Rockford conservationist Barbara Williams has always set her sights on the unloved members of the animal kingdom.
“I’ve always been a champion of the underdog and was the kind of kid who was out there catching snakes and frogs and telling everyone how cool those animals were,” says Williams. “In a way, I’ve never changed. I’m still promoting the kinds of animals that people have a negative reaction to.”
These days, the beneficiaries of her attention are bats, bumble bees and other insect pollinators. Ten years after retiring as a taxidermist at Burpee Museum, she volunteers her time educating people about the benefits of these misunderstood creatures.
“Everyone is super-worried about being stung,” says Williams. “I’ve been messing around with bees all summer, every summer, for seven or eight years now. Know how many times I’ve been stung? Once.”
Breaking through misconceptions, so people can discover the wonder of her small subjects, is what drives Williams.
“I’m trying to get people to appreciate that native pollinators, like native bees, moths, butterflies, flies or beetles, are an incredibly important part of the environment,” she says. “In many cases, they are regarded as keystone species, meaning everything depends on them. You lose them and everything else degrades.”
Williams has a full slate of upcoming educational events scheduled for this year, including leading insect hunts through Anderson Japanese Gardens, a dragonfly walk at Deer Run Forest Preserve, and bat nights at several county forest preserves.
“I’ll even be at bat nights at Anderson Gardens on a full moon,” she says. “It’s going to be very cool.”
At bat nights, she breaks out one of her favorite educational tools: the bat detector on her iPad mini.
“The bat detector is great,” Williams says. “People can see the bat fly over, they can see and hear the call on the app, and it will tell you what type of bat it probably is. People fall in love with it right away. They immediately have a bunch of questions and a desire to learn more. Once you start to get that ball rolling, it will continue rolling on its own.” – EH
James Purifoy, Owner, 15th & Chris
Running a burger restaurant may be a dream come true for James Purifoy, but the path he took to get there was a nightmare.
“The gang wars were so bad that I didn’t think I’d live past 26,” says Purifoy, who’s now 42. “I figured at some point, it would catch up to me and I had the mentality that I was OK with it.”
About three years ago, the Rockford native opened 15th & Chris at the corner of 15th Avenue and Christina Street in Rockford, not far from the Orton Keyes public housing development where Purifoy grew up.
In 1994, when he was 18, Purifoy was charged with aggravated battery with a firearm and spent 10 years in prison. While behind bars, Purifoy took college courses, including some related to the culinary arts.
He was released when he was 29, but with a felony on his record, it was hard to find work.
He bounced around to different jobs before starting JFP Trucking, a Rockford-based trucking company he ran for just over a year.
“It was paying the bills, but it wasn’t my passion,” he says.
His cooking was always a hit at cookouts and his guests always requested his homemade hamburgers.
Inspired by the positive feedback and his culinary skills, Purifoy liquidated his trucking business and started a restaurant, setting up shop in a formerly abandoned building in a tough east-side neighborhood. Because of the location, Purifoy sometimes faces difficulty attracting patrons from other parts of town. So, last fall he purchased a food truck.
“If people are too scared to come to the restaurant, I’ll try to reach them,” Purifoy says. “I have locations I like going to around Rockford and the downtown area, and people will invite me places.”
His 15th and Chris smartphone app allows Purifoy to alert fans to the food truck’s latest location. Customers can also follow him on social media.
“I’m ecstatic to have people come and serenade my business,” he says. “And this is coming from a kid who grew up at Orton Keyes.” – JP
Rod Beaudoin, Executive Director, Beloit International Film Festival
Ever since he was a child, Rod Beaudoin has been involved in entertainment, music and film.
“I love art. I always have,” Beaudoin says. “My life has been full of music and acting. I was always in the musicals at school, and the arts were always promoted in my home.”
His career in entertainment began when he helped form Gerard Entertainment in the late 1980s. For many years, Beaudoin signed Midwest artists to recording and songwriting contracts with industry labels.
In 2005, his passion for film came to the forefront of his creative career. In collaboration with Beloit philanthropists Ken and Diane Hendricks, Beaudoin founded the Beloit International Film Festival (BIFF) and became executive director. Over its 12 years of existence, BIFF has transformed the culture of downtown Beloit.
“I’m not an ideas guy,” Beaudoin says. “I’m a guy who can see a great idea brought up by the people around me. I have a good eye, and I think I’ve been a damn good programmer because of that eye. I can anticipate what an audience will like.”
Beaudoin watches hundreds of films a year. When planning the BIFF lineup, he has a team rate each film based on certain criteria. However, he doesn’t take that approach himself.
“For me, it’s just about feel,” Beaudoin says. “I watch a film and go, ‘Yeah, that works.”
Ask him his favorite film of all time, and he’ll answer right away: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I remember seeing that film as a young boy. It had such an impact on me,” Beaudoin says. “I love it because it’s so brilliantly written. I’m also a voracious reader, and to see a great novel turned into a brilliant film is a joyous journey for me.”
This year marks Beaudoin’s final year as executive director of BIFF. However, he doesn’t plan on retiring just yet. Beaudoin is also the president and executive director of Hollywood Film Festival and plans to work in California full-time.
He leaves behind a legacy of enhancing the culture of our region.
“When BIFF comes around, Beloit just fires up,” Beaudoin says. “People really get to see how great this city is.” – LG
Bob Sondgeroth, Superintendent, Regional Office of Education for Ogle, Lee & Whiteside Counties
Bob Sondgeroth was born into the education world.
His grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. His two older sisters taught and are now retired; his aunt and godmother were also teachers.
It only makes sense that Sondgeroth, now superintendent of the Regional Office of Education (ROE) for Ogle, Lee and Whiteside counties, would eventually lead professional development and training for 26 area school districts.
“We are a compliance instrument for the Illinois State Board of Education,” Sondgeroth says. “We make sure teachers in the district are certified, buildings are safe and all the mandates the state applies are being followed.”
The ROE also works with teachers and staff on classroom standards.
“When the teacher evaluation system came out, we made sure the districts understood how that worked,” says Sondgeroth, who oversees a staff of 46. “We go into the districts, find their needs and tailor professional development to their needs, rather than just coming in and saying, ‘This is what you need to do.’”
When he was younger, Sondgeroth had ambitions of becoming a firefighter after he graduated from Illinois State University in 1978.
“A friend of mine was a volunteer fireman for the Sterling Fire Department, and he asked me to join the volunteers,” Sondgeroth says. “I was able to respond to fire calls whenever I was home for the weekend or on breaks.”
His plans changed when he injured his knee during a house fire. So, Sondgeroth fell back to what he knew and loved: education. For nine years, he taught nearly every grade at East Coloma-Nelson Elementary School, in Rock Falls, Ill.
Sondgeroth eventually became athletic director at East Coloma, and in 2003 rose to assistant superintendent of the Regional Office of Education. He became the regional superintendent in 2011.
Sondgeroth serves in an elected position; his current term ends June 30, 2019.
“I want to help as many people as I can, because that is my motivation,” he says. “It’s been a really fun career.” – JP
Mike Greer, President, Rockford Young Professionals
In April 2014, Mike Greer moved to Rockford without knowing a soul. The young professional had just started a new career working as an IT operating systems consultant at United Health Group.
The best and worst feature of the new job? Greer worked from home, preventing any face-to-face interaction with his co-workers.
“I talk to my team almost daily on the phone, but I don’t actually know what they look like,” Greer says. “I had to make a real effort to meet new people.”
Fortunately, the 33-year-old has a social personality and a love for exploring Rockford. By word-of-mouth, he stumbled upon Rockford Young Professionals (RYP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the Rockford area while giving young professionals a way to socialize, network and make a difference in the community.
Greer felt instantly welcomed and quickly became an active participant in the group. In October 2016, he became president of the organization.
“I guess I’m officially the president, but the title isn’t important to me,” Greer says. “I’m more about doing good for the group. Between our social and philanthropic efforts, everyone has a chance to meet new people and volunteer in the community. We’re huge supporters of local businesses, not chains, so that everyone can contribute to the local economy and see what Rockford has to offer.”
The highlight of Greer’s RYP experience has been organizing a charity event benefiting Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary. He’s also enjoyed volunteering at both the Rockford Rescue Mission and Feed My Starving Children, in Libertyville, Ill. On the social side, he’s helped to organize teams for competitive and pick-up sports, such as kickball, softball and broomball.
Greer plans to stay in Rockford long-term. This spring, he’s opening his own business, called MindGames Rockford, an escape-the-room entertainment center with interactive puzzles and scenario-based games.
“My goal is to do all I can to keep young professionals in town and active in the community,” Greer says. – LG