High school students work on a home near SwedishAmerican Hospital as part of an international class project. (Brian Thomas photo)

SwedishAmerican Foundation: One House at a Time

This is how a neighborhood is restored to better health. Since 2000, this hospital’s foundation has invested more than $4.6 million to improve its surrounding blocks. See what happens when people do well by doing good.

High school students work on a home near SwedishAmerican Hospital as part of an international class project. (Brian Thomas photo)
High school students work on a home near SwedishAmerican Hospital as part of an international class project. (Brian Thomas photo)

Take a drive through the Rockford neighborhood surrounding SwedishAmerican Hospital and you might notice something missing: plywood.
Over the past 14 years, the empty, boarded-up houses and apartment buildings – hallmarks of a struggling neighborhood – have largely disappeared. Dozens of shiny, new or rehabbed houses occupy those same lots. So do a couple of nice parks with playgrounds.
Matt Walling notices. Walling teaches construction at East High School, and since 2006, his students have rehabbed two of those houses, and built three brand-new ones, the latest in partnership with a team of students from Sweden.
“The last three we’ve done have all been houses that were just dilapidated and condemned,” Walling says. “So, if you take down the worst house and put up a new one, it makes a big swing.”
“There are not too many older areas of Rockford where you don’t see boarded-up houses,” Walling says. “You won’t find a boarded-up house around here because of the Foundation’s efforts. The Foundation calls the city and says, ‘Hey, what can we do to get rid of that?’”
He’s referring to the SwedishAmerican Foundation, which, since 2000, has invested more than $4.6 million into an 81-block area surrounding the hospital. They’ve purchased some of the neighborhood’s worst properties and either replaced or rehabbed dozens of houses and apartment buildings, partnering with the city, Habitat for Humanity, East High and others. They’ve also offered 50-50 grants to homeowners for exterior improvements like roofs and siding.
Projects continue, but the pace has slowed a little in the past couple of years – partially because the worst problems have been fixed and partially because the Foundation has more than spent the original money earmarked for the project.
The investment grew from a 1998 decision by the Swedish-American Health System board to keep the 103-year-old hospital in its original location, between State and Charles streets, rather than move it to the city’s northeast edge. With that decision came a commitment to one of Rockford’s core communities: the hospital’s neighbors.
“We have a mission statement here that we really, really take seriously,” says Dr. William Gorski, the health system’s president and CEO. “It says, ‘Through excellence in health care and compassionate service, we care for our community.’ Excellence talks about delivering high-quality care and creating a great experience for people. Compassion is how we treat people. And caring for community is helping patients, families and each other, and this community.”
The mission statement was recast about five years ago, and most of Swedes’ 3,000 employees can state it, Gorski says. The neighborhood project helps bring it to life.
“It sounds maybe overly altruistic, but I really believe it’s who we are,” Gorski says. “The value is enhancing what our mission is – that our employees know that we live what the mission is and we’re willing to stand behind it. People look at that and say, ‘They really mean it.’”

Doing Well by Doing Good

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is credited with the ethical concept of enlightened self-interest. It means people or organizations that act in the interest of others ultimately serve their own interests, too. In other words, they do well by doing good.
John Mecklenburg subscribes. Now retired after 22 years as executive vice president and CEO of the SwedishAmerican Foundation, Mecklenburg was the driving force behind the project to stabilize the hospital’s neighborhood. He makes no bones about what originally prompted the idea.
“Enlightened self-interest? You’re darned right,” he says. “We did that originally to stabilize and make safe the neighborhood in which our employees work. We had 3,200 employees at Swedes. Eighty-five percent of our employees were women. We wanted them to be able to park their cars and walk into work safely – at 2 in the morning, 1 in the morning, 5 in the morning, because we’re open 24 hours a day.”
From a $10 million development campaign in 2000, the Foundation set aside $2 million to “fix the neighborhoods,” Mecklenburg says.
“Dr. Bob Klint was the CEO in those days. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, OK, what are we going to do?’”
The two men drove a six-block stretch just south of the hospital. Then, they started talking to people.
“I wish I could say we started with this grand plan. But that would be way too organized,” Mecklenburg says. “What we did was, we started with about six months of meetings with police, firefighters, aldermen, neighbors. We just kept meeting every month to find out.”
Eventually, the Foundation defined the hurting neighborhood as 81 blocks large. It identified three serious problems: a low owner-occupancy rate, a high population density and a high crime rate. Then, it began buying up the worst properties – those identified as the bottom 10 percent, which couldn’t be rehabbed. Replacing those with single-family, owner-occupied houses made a dent in two of the three problems. The next targets were structurally sound houses that could be saved but needed major updating.
Owner-occupancy has been the most visible change. When the project began, it was 35 percent; today, it’s 51 percent. Density is more difficult to measure, but many of the buildings razed or rehabbed were multi-family units, sometimes in violation of city codes.
“These were not even many times month-to-month rentals,” Mecklenburg says. “These were week-to-week rentals. That’s a pretty transient population.”
Today, the area shows more of a balance.
“Now you’re not being overwhelmed by people who are here this week, gone next week,” he says. “If you’re on a week-to-week rental and your car’s getting vandalized every night, you’re going to leave. I would, too. But if you’ve bought the house and you’re in there for the long term …”

Sex, Drugs and Snakes

Reducing crime has proven the toughest challenge, although there are some success stories. The Foundation spent $600,000 to buy a couple of apartment buildings near the hospital, then another $750,000 to rehab them with new wiring, plumbing and air conditioning.
“Why? Because there were hookers, drug dealers and a boa constrictor living across the street from us,” Mecklenburg says. “And the boa constrictor was the least offensive of the bunch.”
The idea is, you can control what you own. Today, most of those one-bedroom apartments are occupied by Swedes employees who need only to walk across the street to get to work.
“And guess what?” Mecklenburg says. “We have 24 apartments full of really great people living across the street from us. And we have no hookers, no drug dealers and no boa constrictors, as far as I know. And, at this point, I believe the Foundation has gotten all of the money back.”
Crime remains a stubborn problem – not every day on every street, but enough to keep residents wary. Some call the city’s one-year trial program of geo-policing a hopeful sign.
“Now, at our neighborhood association meetings, all of the police show up,” says Deborah Johnson, a Swedes employee who lives near the hospital. “They give us reports. They listen to things we have to say about the problems we’re having. They’re really involved now. I have a lot of optimism that crime is going to turn around because of the way they’re doing that.”
Mecklenburg says the neighborhood’s demographic shift has changed things, too.
“I remember talking to (Rockford Police) Chief Chet Epperson when we first did this, and major crime was down 12 percent,” he says. “And I said, ‘That’s great!’ But minor reported crime was up significantly. I looked at him and said, ‘Chet, what have I done wrong?’
“He said, ‘You don’t understand. You’ve won. You’ve got people in there who now report crime they never used to. People used to expect their cars to get broken into and vandalized. They expected damage. Now, we’re starting to get the calls.’
“And that was a light for me.”

A Dream Realized

Johnson has worked at SwedishAmerican for 23 years, including the past eight as administrative secretary for the Foundation. She had rented a house in Loves Park, Ill., for 14 years, but had given up on the idea of owning one. That is, before a conversation in early 2005.
“John Mecklenburg walked into the office where I was, at the time, and asked me why I didn’t own a home,” she says. “I told him, and he said, ‘I’ll have you in a house within a year.’”
With financial assistance from the Foundation in the form of a $5,000 down-payment grant offered to Swedes employees, Johnson moved into a 100-year-old house near the hospital that October.
“It was wonderful to be able to go in and have the colors that I wanted,” she says. “I had wanted, when you walked in the door of my house, to feel like you were walking into a garden. And darned if I didn’t have somebody over for lunch one day and that was the very thing she said.”
The Foundation had provided a new roof and gutters, and a HUD grant paid to replace the tiny, rickety garage. When the garage floor was poured in 2006, Johnson did something she’d always wanted to do. She signed her name in the wet cement, along with a verse from the Biblical book of James: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”

Help Wanted

If there’s been any disappointment with the neighborhood project, it’s been that it hasn’t been more contagious across Rockford.
Johnson thinks that’s partially because of a “Let George do it” attitude that developed when the Foundation was quickly buying up properties. While that still happens, the pace has slowed.
“The impression is that the Foundation has tons and tons of money to throw at this,” Johnson says. “We don’t. We work from funds that we can raise. John did an awful lot, and the pot ran dry. It’s time for other people to step up and help us out. There’s a void that has been created because of that.”
Rockford’s economic challenges haven’t helped. When large corporate headquarters leave, they take a sense of community ownership with them, Gorski says.
“As things tighten, as economies become more difficult, then the dollars get limited,” he says. “These would be the kinds of things that would tend to fall on the periphery of what you do, and if there was one thing you were going to cut, you’d say, ‘That’s a really nice thing to do but I’m not so sure we can do it any more.’ I would challenge folks. Be creative about that. Sometimes it’s money. Sometimes, it’s just effort.”
Mecklenburg acknowledges the importance of the Foundation’s financial commitment. But he also believes the idea can be replicated on any scale in any neighborhood, and that money isn’t the biggest issue.
He and his wife attended a grandchild’s basketball game recently in a west-side church school gym. As they parked, they noticed several boarded-up houses in the rough-looking neighborhood. He wondered, why isn’t anyone in this church or school addressing this? Why couldn’t men’s groups, women’s groups, student groups take on a rehab project like this?
“I’m willing to help anybody get started – to come in and tell them basically how we did it,” he says. “You find the money. You go buy the first boarded-up house across the street, and you fix it. And when it’s done, you sell it or rent it or whatever, and you take the money and buy the next one. You don’t start with 81 blocks. You start with one house.”
Churches, in particular, could drive these efforts, he says, but often become enamored with what used to be called “Afghanistanism” – a desire to help poor people across the world, but not across the street.
“Every summer, every church in town sends their kids someplace on a mission trip to go help people,” he says. “They always had to send them to Kentucky or Tennessee or South Carolina or whatever … Have they ever thought of sending them to west Rockford? Or south Rockford?
“I know all the other good parts (of mission trips). But it was so satisfying to go down streets like Fourth Avenue after a couple of years, remembering what it had looked like. It wasn’t Afghanistanism. I could see it every day, and so could the people who drove through the neighborhood.”

The Finish Line

There’s still work to do in the Swedes neighborhood. Low home prices are, at the same time, an attraction and a problem. The Foundation typically has spent much more money rehabbing or replacing a house than it’s made back when the house sold.
“People used to ask me, ‘When will you be done with this project?’” Mecklenburg says. “My initial answer was, ‘Well, probably never.’ And then after that, I thought about it and I said, ‘No, we’ll be done when we see property that needs to be rehabbed and we get outbid by developers.’
“When you can rehab a property, sell it and make a profit, the developers will be here. Right now, it’s an economy question.”
East High’s Walling sees the tide slowly turning as every rehab, every new roof or siding job, creates a little more positive peer pressure.
“You might have been looking at this and looking at the impact on your wallet and saying, ‘Whatever I put into my house I’m not going to get back because I’ve got this hole next to me,’” he says. “Well, if that becomes the best house, all of a sudden it prompts you to say maybe it’s worth putting money into another house.”
Mecklenburg believes that kind of steady, incremental improvement is Rockford’s answer.
“I am very tired of this community waiting for the magic bullet,” he says. “It seems that somebody is always presenting or waiting for the next thing that’s going to solve all of our problems. What’s going to fix this town is a lot of people taking responsibility for their neighborhoods.
“We’re just doing this to take care of Rockford. That’s all. We’re not doing it to fix Illinois, or to fix the Midwest. We’re just doing it to fix one little neighborhood down there. It’s amazing what can be done when you’re willing to just do the next thing.”

Swedish Standard House

The SwedishAmerican Foundation’s most recent neighborhood success story is the house at 1301 Benton St., built to Swedish construction standards by students from East High School and Lidkoping, Sweden.
Walls are thicker and more airtight than typical American standards, says Walling. They’re framed with two-by-six lumber, with additional two-by-twos on the inside and outside to contain electrical boxes, wiring and plumbing, so that those elements don’t compromise the main walls’ insulation and vapor barrier.
East’s two construction classes each have between 15 and 24 juniors and seniors, taught by Walling and Dan Harrington. The project took 2.5 years; over that span, 48 Swedish students worked alongside their American counterparts. It’s the neighborhood’s third start-to-finish house built by students, but the first that completely follows Swedish standards.
The Foundation held a ribbon-cutting June 3, during SwedishAmerican Founder’s Week, and the three-bedroom house is now for sale, listed at $75,000.
“The neighborhood project is now more important than ever for SwedishAmerican Health System,” says Foundation Director Laura Wilkinson. “It’s just another example of our commitment to the community, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate with other businesses and companies in the area to help move our community forward.”