Meet 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region.
Everyday heroes are all around us. Parents, emergency responders and teachers come quickly to mind. But what about the small-business owners, conservationists, philanthropists and quiet leaders among us? It’s easy to take for granted, but it’s important to recognize the many ways these heroes inspire us to dream more, do more, be more. So, we’ve found 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region by inspiring others through acts of courage, vision and passion.
A Baker’s Passion
When Rockford City Market launched in 2010, JoJo Genden wanted in. She thought she could make some extra cash by selling baked goods.
“When I called the market, they said, ‘We don’t need a sweets baker, but we could use a bread vendor. Do you know how to make bread?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” recalls Genden, who actually had no experience with bread.
She was a nurse and had only ever baked for fun. “I went to Barnes & Noble and read the first book I could find on breadmaking, and that’s how I started.”
Her first breads were a hit at the weekly market. Then, in 2012, she stepped back to focus on her career and her daughter, now 13. Genden was asked to return to the market in 2016. Three summers later, she made breadmaking a full-time pursuit and opened Crust & Crumbles, a bakery and breadsmith located at Rockford’s Indoor City Market on Madison Street.
Genden has built a loyal following for her naturally leavened bread, a sourdough that’s made without artificial yeast.
“There’s a slow fermentation-type process that goes into our bread,” says Genden. “We have French-style laminated pastries, and we do a lot of croissants.”
What she loves most is exploring her creative process. “I love baking and the actual creation aspect of it,” says Genden. “But, what I’m really passionate about is orchestrating all of that and coming up with different ideas and executing them.”
Perhaps no one is more surprised than Genden that she’s become a permanent fixture in Rockford. Born in Mongolia as a child of diplomats, she moved with her family to Washington D.C., in 1996 when she was just 11 years old. She began studying at Rockford University in 2005 and returned in 2014 for graduate school.
“I thought I was moving to Chicago, but here we are,” says Genden. “I just loved the Rockford area and didn’t want to move away.”
Looking ahead, Genden hopes to share her newfound love and inspire others to find their own passion for breadmaking. She hopes to make the shop a place where people can gather and learn more about what they’re eating.
“I always wanted an all-open workspace,” says Genden. “That’s how we designed this place. I always wanted to stock our shelves with books that inspired me and taught me how to do everything. I’ve completely built a life around that. I want to celebrate that.” – SM
When NASA Calls
How many Rockford manufacturers can say their work is in outer space? For that matter, how many can say their work sits on another planet? There’s a reason Fred Young has earned an international reputation for quality. Since his first experiences in the gear business at the age of 12, he’s grown Forest City Gear into a firm that’s known for quality, precision and verification.
“I’m quite happy and proud that we’ve been able to deliver on a number of new manufacturing challenges, and the word has spread far and wide that this little company in northern Illinois is able to complete some pretty heavy requirements,” says Young, the company’s chairman.
Young’s parents started the business in 1955 inspired by their work with a Sterling, Ill., manufacturer. His father, Stetler, was a die maker by trade, but he and Evelyn found their niche building precision gears at a modest shop in Roscoe, Ill. As a kid, Young did odd jobs around the shop, eventually growing into production roles. After high school he enlisted in the Navy, but he always knew he’d return home. At 25, he rejoined his parents and began working his way through the ranks.
Young now works alongside his wife, Wendy, the company president and CEO. Their three daughters – Kika, Mindy and Appy – are involved, too. Fred has expanded the family by mentoring others, including director of manufacturing Jared Lyford, who’s worked with Fred for more than 20 years.
The Youngs have earned a reputation for quality work, in part because they reinvest 25-40% of the company’s annual gross sales – as they’ve done for decades, Fred says. Doing so has helped them to invest in cutting-edge manufacturing and computer-driven inspection equipment that can measure down to the millionth of an inch.
In fields where that sort of precision matters, leaders are taking notice. The Youngs have welcomed some of the aerospace industry’s biggest names, even landing NASA contracts that put Forest City Gear parts on the International Space Station and four Mars rovers, including one that touched down on Feb. 18.
Fred is still a down-to-earth guy who remains committed to his hometown. His family supports many charitable causes, including the American Gear Manufacturers Association and the Rockford Rescue Mission. He also hires local interns.
“We think it’s a duty and a privilege to be able to help assist our community and support the requirements of people who are not as fortunate as we,” he says. “We want to be able to give back to our community and help make this a really good area in which to live and work.” – CL
A Positive Light
Tony Turner was driving around Rockford one day when he was stopped by a curious passerby.
“This older white gentleman said, ‘Well, that’s a nice car,’ and I told him thank you,” Turner says. “As he goes for the pass, I hear him say, ‘He probably sells dope.’”
Turner thought about what the man said before coming up with a unique idea. He turned a negative situation into a positive one by creating T-shirts that say, “I sell D.O.P.E.” – that is, Drive, Ownership, Power and Enlightenment.
The acronym also references the motto he drives home as the founder of Conscious Coaching, a program that provides guidance and mentorship to inner-city communities.
“I want to show people how to build the drive for whatever they want to do and be whoever they want to become,” he says. “When you have that drive for who you are and what you want to become, you begin to take ownership of who you are.”
He’s also attending the University of Illinois at Chicago with the ultimate goal of becoming superintendent of Rockford Public Schools.
Turner always had a passion to empower people around him, so he started Conscious Coaching with the hopes of giving children in predominately black communities the resources and support they might not otherwise receive.
“I’m Conscious Coaching,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my life working with mental health and at-risk youth. “I want to help the youth like I was helped.”
Growing up in central Illinois, Turner leaned on his “four horsemen” – his father, his grandfather and two uncles – for guidance and support. They kept him on the right path and offered a much-needed foundation for his future. He also receives a lot of encouragement and support from his wife, Latia.
Turner hopes to pass along the lessons he’s learned to the community he serves. He encourages local minorities with special events and initiatives like 815 Stop Killing, Conscious Coaching Trunk or Treat, community wellness fairs and the All-Black graduation ceremony, which celebrates the achievements of African-American high school graduates.
The positive light that Turner shines on local students is rubbing off on his own children, Treylen, 6, and Timberlyn, 16.
“My son will tell anyone he’s an activist and he’s a revolutionary, and he always says, ‘I see you helping people, so I’m going to help people, too,’” Turner says with a smile. “My daughter is quick to advocate for other students of black or brown culture. I just think that’s a good thing.” – JP
Fueled by Art
When Carrie Johnson moved back to Rockford, it was more than just coming home; she was finding herself.
Back when she was a student at Chicago’s Columbia College, Johnson had big dreams of landing on Broadway.
But after eight years performing in the Windy City, she decided it was time to be closer to family. As she madethe transition back home, she knew she didn’t want a typical 9-to-5 job. Rather, she wanted something that fulfilled her creatively, wherever it took her.
She found it when she became museum assistant at Rockford Art Museum in 2006. Though she’d come from a theater background, Johnson quickly discovered a new calling.
“It was just the right place at the right time,” she says. “Once I got here, it was like, ‘Why have I been wasting my time when I could have been doing this?’ But it was all part of the journey.”
Johnson eventually became the museum’s education director and was named curator in 2012. Seven years later, she was named executive director/curator.
“It’s so much more fulfilling to be able to make an impact in my hometown,” says Johnson. “There are so many more unique opportunities that I can be a part of with the art scene in Rockford than in Chicago.”
Johnson finds herself pulling from her theater background, especially her experience in set design, when planning exhibits.
She commonly tries to convey emotions and themes with alternative gallery layouts and methods – maybe a music playlist that accompanies the artist/artwork or unique gallery furniture, for example. This sort of theatrical flair is atypical among museum curators, she says.
“My aesthetic is a little different for museum layouts. I like to use different gallery seating to create a ‘feel’ when you come into the museum,” she says. “It’s the way I look at the flow of the show and how a viewer will see it or how I want them to see it.”
Johnson’s new role balances administrative work and planning for upcoming exhibits. She works closely with her staff on a variety of tasks, including new programming and marketing campaigns. Working with her colleagues is one of the highlights of the job.
“I can’t say it enough: coming to work every day and being surrounded by art is so inspiring,” says Johnson. “Being in a creative environment every day is wonderful. Being surrounded by an amazing, creative staff is so inspiring. We’ve got a fantastic staff, who work really hard. Everybody’s super passionate about the museum.” – SM
Looking on the Bright Side
Pamela Lopez-Fettes cherishes her role as executive director for Growth Dimensions, the economic development council serving Boone County. But she bears another title that means more than anything: survivor.
A survivor of domestic violence and breast cancer, Lopez-Fettes persevered through adversity and came out more empowered and determined to lead a positive and purposeful life, regardless of what life throws at her.
“I always feel that someone is in a worse situation than you,” she says. “No matter how hard things get, I always turn around and say there’s always someone struggling worse than I am.”
It’s only fitting that she carries the same mindset at Growth Dimensions, where she helps in many ways to make Boone County a better place to live, work and play.
“We listen to what businesses need, and we try to customize our approach based on what they’ve shared with us,” she says. “If they’re expanding their workforce, but they don’t have a plan to address it, we’ll bring our workforce partners in.”
Prior to joining Growth Dimensions, Lopez-Fettes spent 30 years in various workforce development and training capacities in the Chicago area.
Under her four years of leadership, Boone County has seen hundreds of millions of dollars invested in residential and non-residential properties, an increase in jobs and tens of millions of dollars in capital invested back into the community.
Lopez-Fettes also initiates growth by helping to bridge the gap between area businesses and schools.
“When I came on board, graduates from the local school system weren’t connecting with the jobs that were available in the community, so there were gaps in the skills needed,” Lopez-Fettes says. “We had conservations with the education system, and they’ve enhanced their pipeline. We’re helping them do that by connecting them with businesses to receive feedback.”
Lopez-Fettes displays her community passion through volunteer efforts with several organizations, including The Workforce Connection, Poplar Grove Wings & Wheels Museum, Women of Today’s Manufacturing and Region 1 Planning Council.
She’s also the mother of three boys. Her elder sons, Tyler and Bryan, are graduates of Belvidere High School and Jonathan, her youngest son, is a senior.
“My goal is to leave things better than how they started,” Lopez-Fettes says. “I always like to look behind and say, ‘I feel really good about what I did.’ It drives you and makes you feel like you’ve made this world a better place.” – JP
Sharing the Beat
As a kid, Skyler Davis had a special ritual when he played basketball in his garage. The Belvidere native faithfully plugged in his parents’ old record player and listened to some vinyl his older sister had gifted him.
His love for music followed Davis into adulthood, when he began traveling to places like Chicago and Milwaukee for concerts. On his travels, he’d often hit up the local music shop. But there was no equivalent in Rockford.
So, Davis and his wife, Lauren, opened Culture Shock Records, Gifts & Clothing to fill the void.
“A lot of our gifts and items are, if not locally designed, then inspired by music, lifestyle and culture,” says Davis. “I think it goes hand-in-hand. Plus, not everybody is into vinyl.”
The couple originally opened their store as a clothing boutique with a focus on music-inspired gifts. They shifted directions in 2006 when a massive flood ruined their original store and the couple found themselves in a difficult financial position.
“I actually sold my personal record collection to keep the store going,” says Davis. “We inadvertently became a record store along with a boutique.”
For Davis, owning a shop with his wife has many perks. While they both are passionate about the products they sell, Lauren always provides a sounding board for her husband. She typically inspects products to make sure they fit with the store. And, they can both share responsibilities.
“We complement each other because I go really deep into the research on some items and do more of the day-to-day running of the store,” says Davis. “She has really helped with building the big picture of our brand presence and design.”
Culture Shock carries a variety of pop culture-related items, from games and toys to clothes, sound equipment and vinyl records – both classics and new releases. Davis is constantly restocking popular records and clothes while searching for local craftsmen to present. He recently started a video series, called Vinyl Happy Hour, where he talks about artists who’ve recently released records on vinyl.
“I don’t think people realize how many artists have their music on vinyl,” says Davis.
For Davis, interacting with customers is one of the best ways to share his passion and learn more about music.
“With music, I’ve learned a lot through listening to the records themselves,” he says. “But it’s also when I talk with my customers or they educate us on something interesting about a band. It’s just constantly learning; I really enjoy that.”– SM
Dr. Vijaya Somaraju
An Eye on Public Health
Consider her the disease detective. As an infectious disease expert at Beloit Health System, Dr. Vijaya Somaraju spends lots of time following clues.
“It’s like when you are at a crime scene and you see a drop of blood,” she says. “Is it from the patient? What type of DNA does this person have? Every infection leaves a clue. That clue is very important, and I need to utilize my detective skills to know that we’re dealing with this, not this.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, her skills have been in high demand as she helps to guide public health experts, hospital leaders and the community through a field of ever-changing information. Whether she’s at the hospital or serving as a board member of the Rock County Health Department, she’s given a tremendous amount of trust. Somaraju sees it as a joy to serve. “I don’t want to say it’s a good or bad experience,” she says. “It’s an experience I will keep in my knowledge bank for the future.”
Pandemics aside, Somaraju is a common link across the health care system. Her insights are just as relevant to a doctor treating patients, a surgeon preparing an operating room, and a pharmacologist preventing the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. Infectious disease is a field that’s always changing, so there’s always something new to learn.
The work isn’t always easy, especially over this past year, she says. But through it all, Somaraju keeps a positive attitude and a joy for her work. She enjoys taking up new challenges and finding creative ways to address public health concerns.
In return, she’s found the Beloit community embrace her with open arms, maybe with a wave at the store or a personal introduction in the hospital. “It’s really nice to feel that. We don’t see that in the bigger communities,” she says. “In Beloit, people will say, ‘Oh, this is my infection doctor.’ They will stop and introduce us to their family members. That is very important to have a connection.”
Since arriving in Beloit in 2015 to establish an infectious disease department, Somaraju has also found a tight network among her colleagues. “They are so nice, so supportive of each other,” she says. “Even before the pandemic, the health system had a very strong team system.”
In turn, she opens her arms to the community. Infectious disease, after all, is a matter of the public’s health.
“I am here for the community,” she says. “If there are any questions in regard to infectious disease, I will try to answer. If I don’t know the answer, I will research it because I want to store that research in my knowledge bank.” – CL
A Lighthouse for the Lost
Carly Rice spends her days providing the same help and support she desperately needed in her past.
The owner of Miss Carly’s, a home-based nonprofit organization in Rockford, was using drugs at age 13. Then, she did human trafficking for a drug cartel in San Diego. At the age of 18, her dad was killed in a hit-and-run and her mom was brutally murdered in a public bathroom.
Things got so bad that she spent time on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. The tent she once lived in is now tattooed on her arm.
Things began to turn around for Rice when she moved to Rockford, where her younger sisters live. She still was raising two kids while addicted to drugs.
Rice got a serious blood infection and was in a coma. After awaking, she took a serious look in the mirror.
“I could no longer hide my addiction and I was going to lose my kids,” she says. “I couldn’t bear the thought of that.”
Around that time, a family friend gave Rice a home-cooked meal and a pass to drug treatment, which moved Rice.
“She had no reason to like me because she wasn’t my friend, but the fact that she was willing to help me and bring me a plate of food from her home did something to me,” Rice says.
From then on, Rice turned her life around and decided to pay it forward to those in a desperate place.
“I needed to stop putting drugs in my body and I needed a way to give back,” she says. “So, I decided to be of service in small ways.”
Miss Carly’s feeds between 500 and 1,000 people each day and offers guidance and hope for the homeless and less-fortunate in Rockford’s urban core.
Rice doesn’t do it alone. She has several volunteers, many of whom are homeless themselves.
“I know so many homeless people who’ve died tragically,” she says. “We fight for these people and it means a lot to me.”
She serves people any time, day or night, and she’s stocked with toiletries and other necessities. She also helps people get into rehab and drug treatment programs.
“A lot of homeless people lack access to technology and feel hopeless,” she says. “I’m just a glorified Googler who fills out online applications all day.”
Rice strives to give love and care to those who need it because, in her eyes, their lives are on the line.
“One of the reasons why we’re so successful is we give people with similar backgrounds, or anyone at the end of their rope, a resource,” she says. – JP
The Light of Distant Beings
As a child, Robert Watters was fascinated with the night sky. He found ample encouragement from his uncles, all amateur astronomers who built telescopes as teenagers. One studied under James Van Allen, the discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts.
Watters never lost his fascination with the night sky, even as his career took him other places. And then one night in 1997, fate intervened – in the form of a comet passing over Rockford.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a couple of nights later I saw it again in the sky and I said, ‘This is not normal,’” recalls Watters, who’s a machinist by trade. He had sighted Comet Hale-Bopp, and Watters wanted to see it closer. He searched for a telescope and ran across the Rockford Amateur Astronomers Club.
Among his new clubmates – all amateurs of varying interests – was someone who worked with Astro-Physics, a Machesney Park, Ill., manufacturer of high-quality telescopes and robotic telescope mounts. In passing, Watters offered that he’d love to do their machining. The opportunity finally came in 2002 and he leaped. Watters now manages the machine shop.
“Any time you can marry your work with your hobby, it’s not work anymore,” he says.
Watters continues to share his passion as president of the Rockford Amateur Astronomers Club. Prior to COVID, they held monthly public viewing sessions and Scout troop meetings at the observatory in Rockford’s Lockwood Park. Those activities are slowly returning, Watters says, and it’s important because interest has been dwindling in recent years.
“We’ve got generations of kids who live in the inner city and have maybe never even seen a star,” he says. “They don’t know what the night sky looks like.”
People are amazed to spy Jupiter’s moons in their binoculars, but Saturn is the real showstopper.
“You know instantly the second they see it, because the expression on their face just changes,” Watters says.
Still, nothing compares to watching a total solar eclipse in central Nebraska in 2017. Watters and his wife gathered with people from around the world. Through two telescopes he watched the “magical, surreal moment.”
On most other occasions, he camps out in an old quarry near Lake Summerset, content to explore distant lights.
“It’s serene and peaceful, and it’s so interesting knowing that you’re looking at light that left its galaxy maybe a million years ago or even a billion, depending on what you’re looking at,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful thing.” – CL
Andrea Schultz Winter
Innovation by Design
As an undergrad studying architecture, Andrea Schultz Winter didn’t realize the impact studying abroad would have on her career.
“I’d always been fascinated by space, how buildings define a space, and how that makes a person feel and how they interact with the spaces,” she says. “It was fascinating to tour old European cities and see how space was defined hundreds and hundreds of years ago – and how people of the modern world are still navigating their way through those spaces. That’s really how I got interested in urban planning.”
After Winter and her husband settled in Freeport, where they now live with their three children, she worked on urban planning projects for the city of Freeport and the Freeport Art Museum. When the Greater Freeport Partnership formed in 2018 she jumped at the chance to become part of the innovative team.
“I’d lived in the community for a number of years at that point, and I’d always been interested in economic development and how it related to urban planning and policy,” she says. “It seemed like a great opportunity.”
As development director of the Greater Freeport Partnership, Winter looks for innovative solutions for things like downtown revitalization, business development, even beautification projects. She often turns to the creative community for ideas.
“Designers, creators – they’re not confined by the norms of what’s been done before,” she says. “A lot of different cities’ economic development organizations have leaned into the art community to look for solutions. We have great artists within Freeport and Stephenson County.
“It’s always a great thing to harness the uniqueness and freshness of new ideas, new eyes and new perspectives. If we can reflect those in our buildings, all the better.”
It’s that kind of ingenuity that led to the Freeport Reflections campaign, in which artists turn vacant downtown storefronts into works of art. Something as simple as paintings or sculptures in a storefront window can brighten up downtown vistas while offering artists a unique way to showcase their work. Another part of Winter’s job is encouraging entrepreneurs to open businesses in some of those empty buildings.
“To see a building that was vacant being rehabbed and a new retail establishment or new commercial business going in on the ground floor, with maybe a couple of residential units upstairs, that’s exciting. To see it replicated downtown gives me goosebumps,” she says. “It’s exciting to see new businesses open, evolve and really become part of the community.”– PH
A Bridge Between a Barrier
When he was kid, Adrian Trujillo was a translator for his preschool classmates. As an adult, he’s a translator for the community he serves.
Trujillo is the first Latino with the Belvidere Fire Department, which gives him a chance to fill a void between firefighters and a community that’s nearly 30% Latino.
“Imagine having an emergency and the paramedics and the fire department show up,” he says. “There’s a language barrier, so you can’t tell anyone what just happened. Someone might’ve broken their leg, but there’s so much panic, and having a language barrier makes it even more difficult.”
Trujillo has spent more than three years as that critical link.
“Having me around helps take that worry away,” he says. “It definitely helps them out, kind of calms them down and lets them know there’s someone who can help.”
He’s been preparing for the role most of his life. His parents immigrated from Mexico to be closer to family and didn’t know English when they arrived. His brother, who’s three years older, learned English in school and passed his knowledge to Trujillo.
“When I got into school, I learned the language pretty fast with my brother,” Trujillo says. “I actually translated Spanish to English for my teachers and I translated English to Spanish for my classmates.”
Trujillo’s historic hire happened by chance. He was a lifeguard at William Grady Pool, in Belvidere, when he ran into Fire Chief Al Hyser, who had also been his football coach at Belvidere High School. At the time, Hyser was conducting an emergency action plan at the pool.
“Chief approached me and said, ‘I see you do all these scenarios out here. Why don’t you come to the fire station and see what we do out there,’” Trujillo recalls. “I was all in, and when I came out here, I thought they were all volunteers.”
Then, he found out it’s a real career. The more Trujillo learned, the more he fell in love. He switched his major from physical therapy and graduated from Western Illinois University with a degree in fire science.
In addition to firefighting, Trujillo is attending the OSF Paramedic program at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center, in Rockford. He’s looking to complete his paramedic certification, which’ll allow him to provide emergency medical care when he’s not in the fire house.
“The City of Belvidere really supports their firefighters and first responders,” he says. “We’re able to give it all back and support them with whatever they need.” – JP
A Servant’s Heart
Patrick O’Keefe holds a simple philosophy on community service: Make a living, make a life, make a difference.
The point is that, in building a career, having a family and serving the community, it’s important to serve others.
It’s a value instilled in O’Keefe in his youth, when he and his mother supported many causes, including Midway Village and the Rockford Art Museum. He’d pitch in wherever he could, even if that meant making popcorn and selling raffle tickets.
“That was sort of expected,” he says. “My mother was always involved in the community and volunteered at a lot of things.”
In his adult life, he’s carried on the expectation while serving numerous nonprofits. He spent more than 15 years on the board of the Rockford Art Museum, supported the Coronado Theatre’s restoration, led the Mercyhealth Foundation when it built a Riverside Boulevard hospital, and has been a familiar face among many Transform Rockford initiatives. That’s all in addition to the 27 years he spent in marketing and business development with Eclipse Inc., a recently shuttered manufacturer of industrial heat processing equipment.
Now, his experiences culminate as he takes the helm of Midway Village Museum. O’Keefe became executive director in January, succeeding longtime director David Byrne, who retired.
O’Keefe steps in at a critical juncture, as the museum fights to widen its appeal and overcome the effects of COVID mitigations. The April opening of Midway’s historical village and the revival of community programs, like the popular World War I re-enactment, bring new opportunities. Embracing his business development background, he’s mindful of how the museum can broaden its appeal to all corners of the community.
“So the question is, ‘What are we doing in the confines of Midway that people outside the gate value?’”
The question is leading to all sorts of new ideas, driven largely by the museum’s staff and their battalion of volunteers.
When it comes to serving, O’Keefe suggests trying all sorts of new things. Every volunteer, from the popcorn-maker to the board president, is critical to the organization.
“Sometimes people think, ‘I’m just giving of my expertise or my talent to this organization,’ but it’s a great growth opportunity for you to get involved anywhere,” he says.
As much as his new work looks to the past, O’Keefe is positive about the future he’s helping to create for Rockford.
“I’m confident, and optimistic and hopeful for Rockford’s future,” he says. “We need to tell the story more, about what’s great about Rockford.” – CL