Inspired to reverse the region’s high rate of child abuse, this set of local moms is engaging the community to support the programs that serve sexually abused children.
When Bridget Finn joined more than 75 women in the basement of Jayme Bastian’s home six years ago, she was part of the genesis of a program that would help turn around the lives of many children in the Rockford area.
She didn’t know it would also shake up her own world.
Club Blue is an organization built on concerns about an alarmingly high rate of child abuse in Rockford. The women hold a fundraising party one night a year in the springtime in a secret location that changes each year. Local businesses contribute food, drink, music, sponsorships and whatever else is needed for a chic nightclub ambience.
“We don’t pay for the party with any of the sponsorship money,” Bastian says. “One hundred percent of it goes to the children. We grant it, and then we endow it so it goes directly for the children. That’s why we rely so heavily on the community.”
Already, Club Blue has raised more than $1 million through its grant program, which has benefited such organizations as Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity, Shirley’s Place, Crusader Community Health and, this year, Rock House Kids and KFACT. Through the generosity of more than 200 contributors – from those who work directly with the annual dance to many corporate sponsors – all money raised helps children.
Last year, Club Blue granted Habitat For Humanity $77,500; Crusader Clinic $75,000; and Shirley’s Place $34,500.
While area children benefit from Club Blue, there’s a collateral benefit as well.
“I had a career in sales before I had kids,” says Finn, a wife and mother of three junior high-age children. “When they were small, I didn’t do much. I was a parent, and some places weren’t all that forgiving with time for working moms.”
So she stayed home with the kids before eventually taking on a part-time role as a substitute teacher. Then came Club Blue.
“As a committee member at large, I was intrigued by how they did things and I had a million ideas,” says Finn. She was one of the original 10 “Club Blue Angels,” the club’s organizational committee, which has grown to 26 women.
“After the third year with Club Blue, I stopped teaching and focused on marketing. It was so exciting to me. We had this challenge to educate our audience about such a sad, sad situation with our kids.”
Finn and the other Angels knew the horrific numbers, which have been growing. During the 2016 fiscal year, 635 referrals were made to the Carrie Lynn Children’s Center in Rockford. Of those, 527 were for sexual abuse and 108 were for physical abuse. Geographically, 572 of the cases were from from Winnebago County, 45 from Boone County and 18 from other counties.
The Carrie Lynn Children’s Center exists to provide a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary response to child abuse, in a child-focused setting, for children in Boone and Winnebago counties. The center is named for Carrie Lynn Gaines, a toddler who was murdered by her family in 1990 and buried in the backyard for five years before investigators found her body.
“You can live here in Rockford and have a beautiful house and a great group of friends and allow yourself to be oblivious about the true need going on just two miles from your kitchen table,” Finn says.
While she was selling the mission of the club, Finn was also selling herself.
“Eventually, some sponsors asked me to help them with their marketing needs,” she says. “I met a woman who owned an agency in Chicago and she involved me in projects that further helped to develop my skill set.
“Now, I find myself with a marketing consultancy here in town. I picked up a skill set, built a quality network of talented local professionals, began my own business and I’m good at it. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity and my life has changed in a way I didn’t expect. It truly grew out of my experience with Club Blue.”
Finn’s story is not uncommon among the women who’ve devoted themselves to the group.
“We have some very smart and powerful women on the committee,” says Bastian. “We’ve had some women come in that are out of the workforce but have skills and abilities they haven’t been able to use. This lets them get those skills back and shows people in the business world they are still capable.”
And those women are paying it forward. Club Blue needed a videographer to promote not only the annual dance, but also to create clips of the organizations it helps, to use when meeting with prospective sponsors. Finn approached Lonnie Iske at Vixen Productions.
“Bridget had heard about us and wanted to see if we were interested,” says Iske, who started her small business in 2006. “I loved their story, their ideas and their goals, and I was onboard immediately.”
Vixen Productions has now served as Club Blue’s videographer for three years as an in-kind service. And the exposure to an event that includes many of the city’s most influential people has been rewarded.
“It gives you a lot more visibility in the community,” Iske says. “You get to interact with people you might not otherwise get to know. In the first year, I didn’t notice much, but each year since has gotten bigger and I’ve noticed more business.”
Another Club Blue contributor is Five Forks Market, which has provided food for the fundraiser every year since its inception. The past few years, it has been one of four food vendors during the VIP portion of the evening.
“I chose to participate because I believe it’s important to be involved in positive things in our community,” says Five Forks president and co-owner Randy Baker. “Those of us who are able to help those in need should do everything we can to help. The positive energy helps everyone.”
Including those who donate.
“We get a good deal of exposure at the event, which is great, but it’s more about contributing to a good cause, for me,” says Baker. “We all need to do our part.”
Club Blue’s mode of operation helps the community in others ways, too.
“A lot of the buildings we have used are either up for sale or lease,” says Bastian, of the secret party locations. “By changing venues, it’s a great way to get people into these buildings. It’s the biggest open house you could have.”
In Club Blue’s third year, the party was held in a building across the street from Chicago Rockford International Airport. Soon after, that building was leased out because a realtor had attended the party.
Despite all of the collateral success stories, the focus of Club Blue will always be the children of Rockford and the organizations that help them.
“They allow exposure for the smaller not-for-profits,” says Dola Gregory, founder and director of Rock House Kids, a benefactor of Club Blue in 2015. “We used the money in 2015 to help build a privacy fence for our playground and this year we plan to use it for an expansion to allow more kids to come in.
“And the Angels will help throughout the year. This past year, they helped provide boots during the winter and some came in and cooked for the kids and did some Christmas shopping for them. When they get connected with you, you are connected for good.”
And the connections have grown through the years.
“First and foremost, I’m overwhelmed to do something for these children,” says Bastian. “That’s the most important thing. Next is the contribution the whole community makes to help this whole thing happen. The whole community has gotten behind this like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
“We are affecting change,” added Finn. “It’s pretty remarkable what it’s done for all of us.