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.
Linden, Jermaine Pigee, Jim Taylor, Paul Anthony Arco, Paula Hendrickson, Randy Ruef, Toni Rocha // Photography by Samantha Behling
A Servant’s Heart
Jen Jacky has always lived by one guiding principle: she’s not going to ask you to do something she won’t do herself.
That attitude fueled Jacky’s success as CEO of the Belvidere YMCA.
“If I didn’t put my daughter in a program, how can I promote the program to the community? That’s why my daughter grew up in Y Care and participated in sports like basketball. To run quality programs, we all need to be involved.”
After 10 years of overseeing the Y, Jacky, who’s best described as extremely outgoing and well connected in the community, has taken her can-do attitude to the Belvidere Park District, where she was named executive director in December 2021.
The move was a logical next step in Jacky’s career path. “The YMCA and park district have been tremendous partners,” she says. “The Y has helped the park district with lifeguarding and swim lessons, for example. I’ve learned throughout my career that to truly carry out the mission – whether it’s the Y or the park district – you need to be a part of the community.”
Jacky practices what she preaches. The list of local nonprofits she supports is long and impressive. She volunteers or serves on many boards, including those of the Boone County Board of Health, Boone County Housing Authority and the Boone County Community Foundation, among others. For her efforts, Jacky received the Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce’s Doctor of Civic Betterment award last year.
“I love Boone County, youth development and serving the community,” she says.
The Sycamore, Ill., native comes from a tight-knit family. She was 13 when her father died from leukemia, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange. Jacky credits her mother for showing the importance of becoming independent and helping those in need with a servant’s heart. Jacky, who is married, came to Belvidere 17 years ago when she worked for RAMP, an organization that serves people with disabilities, and decided to make Boone County her home.
The first order of business for Jacky in her new role at the park district is to determine the best way the parks can serve the community. Jacky, her staff, and board are busy conducting an aquatic and recreation feasibility study.
“We are looking at what programs we can bring to the community and how to best utilize the amazing properties that we have,” she says.
It’s a tall task, but Jacky has never been one to shy away from big challenges. –PAA
Hard Work Pays Off
Retirement doesn’t mean you stop working. Not when you’re Larry Phippen.
In November 2018, Phippen sold his Loves Park, Ill., company, Adapt Plastics, to California-based Professional Plastics, but he still consults with the company and its salespeople.
His path began on an Iowa farm.
“Where I grew up we had no running water, no indoor toilets, no electricity,” he recalls. “We had mud roads. I used to walk to a one-room school. I milked cows by hand. We had good work ethics; we were up at 4 every morning, worked all day and after school, and when you got to bed you were worn out.”
He graduated high school, worked his way through college, then got drafted and sent to Korea. The hard work, discipline and dependability he learned on the farm made Army life seem easy.
While serving, Phippen met someone from the tape industry at Walter Reed’s Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He needed a salesman. “So, I started out selling tape.”
Since most tapes contain plastic, Phippen called on several plastics distributors. Like a scene from “The Graduate,” someone told him, “Larry, you need to get into this.” So he did.
Over the years, Phippen heard complaints about how difficult and messy it was to machine plastics. That gave him an idea.
In early 1973, Phippen approached Jim Thompson, then a plant manager at Borg-Warner, about starting a business that machines plastics. “They had a bunch of machinery warehoused and mothballed that they were trying to get rid of, so we bought a lathe and a mill and put it in the basement of his house,” Phippen recalls.
A few years later, the pair moved their shop to Loves Park and eventually built a facility on Forest Hills Road. He and Thompson – who has since died – also started Hi-Tech Polymers, a urethane company.
He was always open to selling his business when the time was right, but he wanted to do it in a way where his employees would have opportunities with the new owner. In 2018, Professional Plastics came calling. A distributor with 18 locations, it was eager to expand into plastics fabrication.
“[The owner] was impressed with what we did, how long we’d had our customers – and our employees,” Phippen says.
A modest man, Phippen is proud of his business’ legacy but he gives full credit to his employees and customers. “One person can’t do it. You need a team of good people, and they’re right here in Rockford, Loves Park and Beloit. They helped build this business and are still building it.” –PH
Lessons in Leadership
To really understand Martesha Brown’s community work, you also have to understand the core values she learned from her parents.
Growing up, her mother worked as a camp director and with people with disabilities in the public schools. Her father was a coach and grocery store manager. The stories they brought home from that work secretly filled their young daughter with lessons on leadership and the value of community service – ideals she holds closely today.
“My Momma Bear and Papa Bear are the first to tell you that you always need to be a part of the solution, so don’t complain,” she says. “I think a lot of my work in the community is seeing a problem and not complaining about it. I want to hop in and be part of the solution.”
Carrying forth her father’s big heart and her mother’s tenacity, Brown sees herself as a connector and advocate for those whose stories sound like hers: growing up in Auburn Manor, on Rockford’s west side, and following her passions to make a name for herself.
In her roles as a Rockford Park District commissioner and a regional community development relationship manager for Midland States Bank, Brown is helping to remove barriers, build communities and provide economic opportunity for others.
When she’s not volunteering with groups like Think Big, the Illinois Association of Park Districts, or the Rockford Area Entertainment Venue authority, she’s passing the torch and coaching other young leaders who can benefit from the experience and wisdom of others. She still looks fondly upon the lessons she’s learned from leaders like Tommy Meeks.
“To know where I came from, I have to come back and make sure I give somebody else that opportunity,” she says.
There are moments of doubt, but Brown believes it’s her confidence in a higher purpose that drives her, and it’s the encouragement of fellow leaders that helps her grow. “In Rockford, you have the chance to be invested and fix the problem,” she says, “and there are a lot of major cities where you can’t do that.”
Brown still smiles about the nights when her father, then a general manager at Logli’s grocery store, would come home from work and share stories from his day. Those lessons on leadership and working with people still stick with her, all these years later.
“My dad was always telling me, ‘You need to be a coach; you need to lead beside people,’” she recalls. “It’s not about a title. It’s about purpose and what God is calling you to do.” –CL
Daring to Follow a Dream
When Addie and Tim Ford opened Barnstormer Distillery, naming their company came easily. But establishing Rockford’s first distillery in over a century – that felt like the act of a daredevil.
Addie comes from a family of Rockford entrepreneurs with ties to aviation, and she’s spent decades handling human resources for small businesses, including airlines. Tim worked as an A&P mechanic and eventually became a pilot, consultant and trailblazer, helping to start and operate multiple airlines. The couple’s first big adventure began shortly after they were married.
“We accepted an offer to help start and run a cargo airline based in Finland, and we flew MD11s across Europe, Asia, Africa and India,” Ford says. “I focused on the HR aspect while Tim was the airline’s COO.”
Once the airline was established, the pair were asked to re-create their success for an operation in Florida. “And then we decided to retire and move back to my hometown,” Addie says.
As they settled back in northern Illinois, the Fords began toying with a new adventure. They purchased a 22-acre farm on Illinois Route 2 and established Barnstormer Distillery.
For Addie, the business name felt like an homage to her family’s and hometown’s heritage as much as it reflected the giant risk they were taking on. To Addie, distilling felt as unpredictable as aerial acrobatics and the “flying circus” that barnstormer pilots made famous during Prohibition.
“And it’s how we distill,” she says. “It’s not that we’re not technically savvy, but we do everything by smell, taste, sight and sound – and that’s how the barnstormers flew, with no automation whatsoever.”
Combining technical savvy with creative license, the pair now concoct inventive spirits such as horseradish vodka, cucumber vodka, Brazilian-style rum, licorice rum, and cinnamon whiskey. Ingredients are as local as possible, including botanical flavors that come straight from the Ford family’s farm.
While Tim works the stills, it’s Addie you’ll spy at the tasting room bar every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She whips up farm-to-cocktail flavors with an inventive flurry.
And there’s no place in the world she’d rather be doing it.
“I’m a hometown girl, and this is where my family is and the people that I love,” she says. “If we’re going to invest in a community, I want it to be a community we care about. You can go anywhere in the world and build something, but if you have the opportunity to come back and build something for your hometown, why wouldn’t you?” – TR & CL
Working to Be a Good Neighbor
Growing up in Rockford, Brad Roos did all the sorts of things kids did in the 1950s – school, sports, church with Mom and Dad, chemistry experiments in the basement. But when he embraced his relationship with God, Roos set off onto something extraordinary.
It started in high school, when he joined a Christian youth organization called Young Life. Its leader at the time welcomed kids of all backgrounds, including those involved with drugs. “He recognized them as also loved by God,” says Roos.
His true moment of clarity came when Roos pursued chemistry and environmental studies at the University of Illinois. “I just felt God saying, ‘You need to work more with people.’ And that was not what I wanted to hear,” Roos recalls.
Still, he listened and switched his major to education. He taught high school in Champaign and followed the still-small voice to a school in Puerto Rico, then back to Champaign, where he spent 14 years leading a nonprofit home improvement program that served people with low incomes. The voice called again in 1990, when it brought Roos to Rockford’s ZION Development Corp.
As ZION’s director, Roos spent nearly 25 years working with residents of Midtown District to take back their streets from adult bookstores, criminals, prostitution, chronic homelessness and more – always in a way that loved on others and built community in the neighborhood.
Roos oversaw the purchase and restoration of many once-desolate properties, completely renovating them. Roos, ZION and the City of Rockford cleared adult bookstores and dangerous bars from Seventh Street, established affordable housing, and transformed the Grand Hotel on Broadway – “the most dangerous building in nine counties,” he says – into the city’s first permanent supportive housing facility.
In 2012, two years before he retired, Roos and his wife, Sue, moved to a condo at Lantow Lofts, one of many Midtown properties ZION developed under Roos’ leadership.
The couple now support local sustainability initiatives and continue rehabbing an historic building a block from their home. All the while, they’re still listening to that still-small voice.
“People will ask me, ‘Where do you live?’ and I’ll say, above Katie’s Cup. They say, ‘Oh,’” says Roos. “‘Why do you live there?’ Because I like living in Midtown. ‘Oh.’ Then they treat you differently. You’re their neighbor. They’re not your project. So, it changes how we think about each other. I don’t think about it as serving anymore. I just think about it as working to be a good neighbor.” –CL
His City. His Story.
Filmmaker Pablo Korona’s signature storytelling project began with a poster on a wall.
“I was walking down a hallway at Rock Valley College, and I saw a poster that said, ‘Do you Want to Make Movies?’” says Korona. “I thought ‘Yeah. That’s what I want to do.’”
Korona enrolled in Rock Valley’s Mass Communication course the first year it was offered and he never looked back.
“Video provided the path of least resistance,” he says. “I really enjoy doing it.”
He once had an opportunity to work as a filmmaker in New York, but it didn’t feel right to the Rockford native.
“My heart wasn’t in New York,” he says. “I felt that my community needed its story told.”
So he has. Korona’s “Our City, Our Story” videos focus on the personal stories of individuals or groups in Rockford.
“The people whose stories we tell don’t always realize how significant their stories are, and it electrifies them,” says Korona. “That’s the fuel in the tank that keeps me going.”
Korona’s work may be based in Rockford, but it frequently gains national attention. Of more than 60 videos he’s made to date, several have gone viral. His video titled “Merle + Stella,” which introduces a couple married more than 76 years, has garnered over 150 million views and counting.
“I sat them down, turned on the camera, and captured lightning in a bottle,” recalls Korona.
His approach – letting the story announce itself – serves Korona well.
“I just run the camera,’” he says. “My videos always work best when I sit back and let the story tell itself.”
In addition to his filmmaking, Korona is also making a name for himself as a visual artist. During the pandemic, when “Our City, Our Story” was shelved, he turned to painting to relieve stress and stay creative. To date, he has sold over 150 paintings.
“For me, painting is the polar opposite of making video,” he says. “I don’t need to book a shoot, set up my gear, shoot and edit. I just grab some paint and throw it on a canvas.”
Now that “Our City, Our Story” is back up and running, Korona is alternating between the editing suite and the art studio. No matter where he is, the focus is always on what is being revealed in the moment.
“My work is always about now, what is special and unique about now,” he says. “The story I’m telling now is always the most important story.” –JT
Sewing Seeds of Joy
For JoAnn Gorsline, a passion for sewing began as more of a necessity for a self-described “tall and skinny girl.”
“I started sewing when I was 9 because I couldn’t find anything to fit me,” she says. “My older sister taught me how to do things like put in a zipper. And I took some summer classes, so by the time I was in high school, I was making my own prom dresses.”
Today, her focus is on much smaller clothing. For the past seven years, Gorsline, a registered nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Mercyhealth’s Javon Bea Hospital-Riverside, has created Halloween costumes for premature babies at the facility’s 52-bed NICU and 12-bed Small Baby Unit.
Gorsline had an unusual path to baby costumes. Out of college, she started her own in-home sewing business and made things like wedding dresses, prom dresses and costumes.
“I wanted a business of my own so I could stay home and take care of my kids,” says the mother of two. “But I had trouble saying ‘No’ to people, and it got overwhelming.”
So, she jumped into the corporate world working for Newell Rubbermaid. When jobs in the company moved overseas, the company offered to pay for her to return to college.
“I could have gone for my MBA and stayed in the corporate world,” Gorsline says, “but instead, I chose to go to nursing school at age 50, which is insane.”
She graduated from Highland Community College in her hometown of Freeport and was immediately hired at Mercyhealth’s NICU, where a friend already worked. Her new job rekindled her love of sewing.
“It started with the Angel Gown program, where we take people’s wedding dresses and make gowns for babies who die,” she says. It was extremely sad, but Gorsline found it also brought a sense of joy to serve others. And thus began another venture.
“I would see on social media other NICUs that dressed their babies for Halloween, and I thought, here we are, the largest NICU in the area and we don’t dress our babies for Halloween,” she says. So, she set out to change that.
Gorsline makes about 50 to 60 costumes a year, each one taking up to 3 hours to craft. She uses spare time at work and home. Her most popular costumes are the sunflower, owl and penguin, but she’s also done Fred Flintstone, Charlie Brown, Grover and Cookie Monster, among others.
“The nurses and doctors get so excited,” Gorsline says. “Every year they come to me with ideas for different costumes. And the parents get very excited, too. They say it brings some sort of normalcy to their time in the NICU.” –RR
Helping Those in Need
When Angie Walker sees a homeless person in the street or under a bridge, she refuses to turn her back on them.
“I believe that people should have a place to live,” she says. “I don’t believe they should live in bridges, tents and parking garages. I don’t think that’s OK.”
Walker has spent the past three years as the homeless coordinator for the City of Rockford. Her job is to get as many people as possible off the street and safely into a shelter.
“I think homelessness is a public health issue, and it’s an issue that affects an entire community,” she says. “If you can help those that are the most vulnerable in your community, your community overall can be better.”
Prior to joining the City of Rockford, she worked as a public housing manager. In 2015, Rockford reached “functional zero” for homeless veterans, meaning the number of veterans who were homeless here was less than the monthly housing placement rate.
“So, for us, functional zero is actually eight veterans, and we have to stay underneath eight at all times – and we have since 2015,” Walker says.
Walker says homeless people can be found in many surprising places around Rockford. Occasionally, they’ll even seek her out at City Hall.
“We’re always doing outreach,” she says. “We’re in parking garages and we’re in abandoned buildings. You name it, we pretty much go there.”
Walker’s agency serves as the single point of entry for anyone who’s experiencing homelessness in Winnebago and Boone County. Once her office makes contact with a homeless person and gets them comfortable, Walker’s team retrieves whatever information they can before placing that person on the By Name List, a running database of every homeless person in Winnebago County.
“From there, we make sure they have food, and if they need mental health assistance we can refer them to the proper places,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal is to get them into some type of housing.”
Serving the homeless isn’t something Walker ever expected to do, but the more she met with people and visited homeless camps, she says she couldn’t help but get involved.
“It became a passion of mine,” she says. “Every time we get someone off the streets and housed, that’s a success, and every time someone who lives in a parking garage doesn’t die, that’s a success. These are real things that happen to people all the time.” –JP
A Stitch in Time
Call it a perfect fit.
When Donna Langford became executive director of the Beloit Historical Society in October 2019, she brought with her not only the right educational background but also the desire to share the Beloit area’s rich history.
“I have family living in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin,” says the Rockford native. “I grew up here and am fascinated with the region’s unique history. There’s so much for area residents to learn.”
In her current role, Langford is exploring new ways to bring volunteers and curious residents into the stories of our past.
In fact, she’s spent a lifetime diving into the stories of our predecessors. From 1999 to 2010, she was a curator at Rockford’s Tinker Swiss Cottage, where she helped to rebuild the cottage’s historic suspension bridge, replant the historic gardens and rebuild the barn that now serves as a welcome center.
Then, with the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association Langford preserved a history that includes the development of barbed wire fencing. As a chair for the DeKalb County Barn Tour, Langford helped to attract visitors from three nations and 10 states to the historic properties of DeKalb County.
What many don’t know about Langford is that she’s also a passionate quilter. In fact, not only does she have degrees in biology and anthropology, but she also has a master’s in textile history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So, it may come as little surprise that she also owns an in-home quilting business, through which she repairs heirlooms, designs patterns and offers advice at workshops and quilt shows.
Langford had barely settled into her role at Beloit’s historical society and its expansive collections when the COVID-19 pandemic made her job much more challenging.
“Right now, our volunteer group is about 90 percent depleted,” Langford explains.
“My goal was to present more of the society’s collection as well as find ways to add to it with meaningful new acquisitions,” she adds.
The pandemic has slowed her from achieving many of her initial goals, but it hasn’t stopped her from pursuing grants and other opportunities to improve the museum’s structural integrity and long-term maintenance.
“I am optimistic that, in the near future, we will be able to overcome these challenges and welcome visitors back into a museum that offers more insight into how the Beloit area grew and prospered through the decades,” Langford says. –TR
The Ultimate Green Thumb
For 40 years, Jon Carlson’s workspace has been surrounded by blooming trees, colorful plants and damp soil under his feet. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve always been an outdoors type of guy,” says the Rockford native. “I could never sit at a desk all day.”
Carlson and his wife, Judy, own J. Carlson Growers, a popular nursery on Rockford’s far east side. “It’s been a great experience,” says Carlson. “I learn something new every day.”
His passion for plants started at an early age. As a teenager, he enjoyed mowing grass and getting his hands dirty in his family’s gardens. From there, Carlson earned a horticulture degree from Iowa State University before moving to the state of Oregon, where he honed his craft for the next four years in some of the nation’s best nurseries.
“Going to Portland was one of the best decisions in my career,” he says. “Portland is on the cutting edge of interesting plants, and it expanded my knowledge of what I really wanted to do.”
The Carlsons returned to Rockford around the same time his grandfather, well-known architect Gilbert Johnson, died in 1977. Johnson designed many local churches, homes and schools, including East and West High Schools, and he owned a 79-acre property on Newburg Road that had been used as a corn and soybean farm. Carlson acquired his grandfather’s property and started a nursery business in 1982.
“It was the right time,” says Carlson, who worked side jobs for a few years until his business got off the ground. “We focused on planting, growing, selling and delivering. But it didn’t happen overnight.”
With just three full-time employees and 14 seasonal employees, J. Carlson Growers has built a long roster of residential and commercial clients, and the firm supplies plant material to some of the most impressive gardens in the area – including Anderson Japanese Gardens, Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens, and Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Carlson’s catalog ranges from oaks and burning bushes to Japanese maples.
“You can have the most beautiful buildings, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t surround them with landscaping,” he says. “Even a shack in the woods has trees around it.”
Carlson is proud of his business’ longevity. Not every small business can survive the highs and lows that transpire over four decades. And he has no plans on slowing down any time soon.
“I’ve been blessed with loyal customers and a great staff,” he says. “For me, it’s always been about growing the plants and making our customers happy.” – PAA
Carmela Jackson was at a crossroads in her life. The Freeport resident had lost her job at a local bank when her department was eliminated. Uncertain of her next move, Jackson followed her heart.
“I always loved shopping, thrifting and hosting garage sales,” she says. “That’s when I decided to open a consignment shop.”
Jackson, who is married and now has three grown children, found retail space across the street from the bank and opened Twice as Nice Consignment in 1999. Her business became so successful that she opened a second shop, dedicated to furniture, called Twice as Nice Home. Jackson’s goal was to stay afloat for at least a couple of years. Two decades later, she’s still meeting a need in her community.
“People started bringing in their items and it kept getting better every year,” she says. “We now have a website that hosts more than 8,000 items, which is only a small portion of our inventory. And we are catering to a second generation of customers who used to shop with us as kids and are now coming in with their children. It’s a cycle that I never dreamed was possible.”
Jackson’s success today owes much to her experiences in youth. She was born in Rockford but given up for adoption 10 days later. Her adoptive parents moved to North Dakota, where Jackson grew up surrounded by very few people who resembled her. “There weren’t many bi-racial people like me in North Dakota.”
In school, Jackson was an A student and participated in sports, but she languished.
“I felt out of place,” she says. “I was bullied; I was called the N-word. I didn’t know why they were saying what they said, or why they were being so mean to me.”
After high school, Jackson attended Moorhead State University in Minnesota. Her dream was to become a doctor, but that plan was rerouted with one phone call from a social worker. Her biological parents wanted to meet; the reunion went so well that Jackson moved to Freeport to live with her biological family.
“I was happy to be surrounded by people who looked like me,” she says. “I was so excited when I found out that I had a younger sister who could be my twin.”
Jackson says her upbringing has helped shape her life, so much so that she’s paying it forward by mentoring girls age 16-18 who are dealing with their own challenges. “I believe the struggles you go through make you a better person,” she says. “You have to be strong to overcome challenges in life, and believe me, there will be challenges.” –PAA
Shining a Light
He may consider himself a lifelong tech geek, but it’s his faith in God that’s led Chuck Konkol to his true calling.
The Webb City, Mo., native might never have made it to Rockford if it weren’t for that phone call 20 years ago from a small Christian school that needed someone with his background.
Konkol started his career as a pastor and youth pastor but always found himself helping others with technology. He went back to college to study the Bible and, while subbing for a professor, discovered a new calling.
“I just fell in love with teaching,” he says. “I’d taught a little bit in the past, but it just hooked me and it switched my whole trajectory.”
The call from Rockford Christian Schools led him to northern Illinois and eventually, a job at Rock Valley College.
For the past 20 years, Konkol been a familiar face at RVC’s computer programming classes, instructing topics like mobile app development, web design and digital photography. He launched Hour of Code in 2015 and watched in amazement as children and their families together learned programming skills in these Saturday-morning sessions.
“To see someone create something that works – it could be a small app or a robot – and know they created it themselves, that’s pretty empowering,” Konkol says. “This is one of the few fields where you can create something that doesn’t exist for a need that does exist and change someone’s life quickly.”
Konkol also was a key player in launching RVC’s TechBus, a former city bus that was retrofitted into a mobile classroom. In its first years, the bus has become a digital ambassador to libraries, churches, retirement homes and west-side neighborhoods as people use it to learn coding, design and other digital training while also connecting with or enrolling at RVC. In between, Konkol has volunteered in places like Transform Rockford and Burpee Museum. In fact, he’s always quick to urge students to volunteer. “Anything you can do in the community to volunteer, do it because it will always pay off,” he says.
Over the years Konkol has helped many students connect with rewarding and high-demand careers right in their hometown.
Though his career path may have taken him away from the pulpit, Konkol finds he’s never been far away.
“There are very dark places in technology. I tell students that from day one,” he says. “But you can bring a light to that world with positivity, a good work ethic and changing peoples’ lives by the code you create.” –CL