Mind & Spirit

13WREX Makes a Difference On and Off the Air

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From raising funds to sponsoring charitable events, the news team at 13WREX takes community service seriously. See how the station has made service a pillar of its business.

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Christie Battista and Morgan Kolkmeyer interview Major Steve Merritt.

Local television stations do more than just cover news that affects the community. From sponsoring charitable events to helping raise funds and much-need donations of supplies, television stations like 13WREX are making an impact on the community it serves every day.

“Community service ranks right there with ratings and revenue,” says WREX vice president and general manager John Chadwick. “It’s one of the pillars of this station and broadcasting in general. We take it seriously.”

Since Nov. 2014, WREX has participated in four major community projects, helping a Freeport food pantry, raising funds for the ALS Association, taking part in a tornado relief drive and securing school supplies for area school districts. That doesn’t include other ongoing events such as Santa’s arrival at the CherryVale Mall, coverage of the Rockford Pro-Am golf tournament or a Day of Service project with Habitat for Humanity.

Station leaders say community service plays a vital role in transforming Rockford.

“Transform Rockford is a grassroots organization with a vision to help the community grow,” says Chadwick. “Many members of our station got involved with Transform Rockford during those initial meetings. I saw people at those meetings that I had never seen before. I heard voices speak out I had never heard before. It’s exciting to see new people step up and get involved.”

In August 2014, WREX participated in an Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for the ALS Association. Members of the WREX staff set up a dunk tank at Rockford City Market, and for a donation, people could dunk a community member or WREX employee. The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford and the Rockford Fire Department also took part in the Friday night event. “It was fun to put our own spin on it,” says news director Josh Morgan. “Most importantly, our goal was to get people talking about Alzheimer’s and the ALS Association.”

Last November, the Freeport Cooperative Food Pantry was forced to close because it ran out of food. Not only did WREX cover the news story, the news station decided to get involved to keep the food pantry open.

“We brought in our entire staff for live broadcasts from Freeport High School and Lincoln Mall,” says Morgan. “The Freeport community generously donated three tons of food, which helped keep the pantry open through the holidays. This was especially important with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up. It was a complete team effort.” WREX has stayed in touch with the pantry and hopes to participate again this holiday season.

In April, a devastating tornado hit the communities of Rochelle and Fairdale. Eleven people were injured and at least 70 buildings were destroyed in Fairdale, a town that is just 12 blocks long. A WREX news crew was one of the first on the scene.

WREX, along with its radio and newspaper partners, teamed up with the Salvation Army to host a 14-hour drive that raised more than $45,000. All donations were used to purchase gift cards in the amounts of $50 and $100 for residents in Fairdale and Rochelle.

“It brought people together,” says Tina Ryan, WREX national sales manager. “You saw what people were going through; they were digging through the rubble, looking for anything they could salvage or cling to. For me personally, I would hope someone would come to my aid. It’s incredible to see – when something so devastating happens – how generous the community can be. We do it because we care.”

Finally, on Aug. 17, WREX took part in a community effort called “Stuff the Bus.” The station teamed up with Rockford, Harlem, Freeport and Belvidere school districts to hold a 14-hour drive in the parking lot of four Schnuck’s locations. Residents donated books, writing utensils, hand sanitizer, Kleenex, and other supplies, along with cash. McDonald’s donated 1,000 backpacks filled with supplies, and the Belvidere Chamber of Commerce provided calculators.

“Stuff the Bus was a true team effort,” says Chadwick. “From manning the donation points to packing up the donations for delivery, there wasn’t a person in our building who wasn’t involved. There’s a huge benefit for us in doing these events. We truly feel like a team.”

Marsha Sisney is the Parent and Community Engagement Supervisor for Rockford Public Schools. She coordinates the district’s donations and community volunteers. Sisney was on site for some of the drive and gave tours of the bus as people, including students – dropped off supplies.

“It was huge,” Sisney says. “Every building in the district was able to benefit from the donation drive. We’re so thankful to have such a supportive community that helps RPS 205 throughout the year. But this donation drive was unique. It not only benefitted the entire district, but donations came from so many communities to support schools in our region. Their support will have a major impact on students and staff.”

Sean Muserallo, a WREX news anchor, says participating in various community events has brought a tight-knit television station even closer.

“When we get together for these projects, there’s a feeling in the room that we’re doing something important. It’s tangible,” he says. “Working fundraisers together as a staff not only strengthens our bonds, it does the same for our connection with our viewers.

“My wife and I have gotten involved in different charities here in Rockford,” he adds. “What I think people need to remember is that when you lose yourself in the service of others, you truly become connected to them. If my station didn’t come up with so many ways to give back, it would be hard for me to say to people, ‘We’re all in this together.’ We really are. We all want Rockford to succeed in its transformation to become a Top 25 community by 2025. By holding events that create positive energy, we’re showing the community that we’re right in the trenches with them to create a better Rockford for all our families.”

Recently, WREX staff held a yard sale to raise money for the United Way. Employees cleaned out the station, which unearthed outdated equipment, promotional posters and other unusual items that were put up for sale. Employees even brought items from home to donate. The two-day event raised nearly $1,500.

“We’re incredibly blessed to have the team that we have, people who rally behind a cause,” says Ryan. “Our team worked 12-hour days schlepping around stuff, but the reward was helping our community. It was totally worth it.”

For its community efforts over the past year, WREX was nominated for an Illinois Broadcasters Silver Dome award. The station received a first place for its assistance in the Freeport Food Drive and second place for the Ice Bucket Challenge.

“We’re stakeholders in this community,” says Morgan. “We all want to make an impact. We have a group of people who don’t just care about the news; they care about bettering the community.”

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