By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Brooke Road United Methodist Church didn’t so much create a community center as it did allow one to evolve from within.
For years, the church leadership pondered what to do with empty Sunday school classroom spaces. They listened to the needs of the southeast Rockford neighborhood surrounding the church, and in many cases simply opened their doors for community groups to come in and do the work themselves.
“Mostly what we do here is give the keys to the groups that run the programs themselves and just needed the space,” Pastor Violet Johnicker said. “Because it’s not programs that we’re coming up with — it’s stuff that the neighbors have said that they need and want, and that they want to run themselves — things have been really successful because they’re organic.”
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Brooke Road Community Center, 1404 Brooke Road, celebrated its official opening Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the United Way of Rock River Valley, Rockford Chamber of Commerce, state Rep. Maurice West, state Sen. Steve Stadelman, Mayor Tom McNamara and Alderwoman Aprel Prunty, among other dignitaries.
You don’t have to be a part of the congregation to use the community center, and it is open to people of all faiths and those who don’t practice any religion.
The center was already alive with activity even before opening day because of the work by community groups filling the space. There are Zumba classes, a little free food pantry, a computer lab, Spanish-language services including an Alcoholic Anonymous class in Spanish, a room for the Girl Scouts and immigration services.
Now, Kristin Cottrell is leading the next phase for the center as its manager. She has a background in child welfare and family support services and experienced first-hand the need for the type of services the center will provide. Cottrell said she grew up in extreme poverty in the same neighborhood where the center is now.
“110 Brooke Road. That house doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s knocked down,” Cottrell said. “It’s just coming back home and knowing the needs.”
Cottrell is integrating several new programs, including some that are part of United Way’s effort to boost child literacy rates in the county.
Next week, they’re starting a homework club for third through 12th graders that will give them access to the WiFI, computer lab and printers they may need for school. Tutoring will be incorporated into that soon, Cottrell said.
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Later this month they’ll launch Reader’s Night In, a parent drop-off program where children pre-kindergarten through 12th grade can join a book club, read or tackle crafts around literacy.
There will also be art therapy classes and other activities for all ages.
“Basically what we’re doing here is a social and emotional well-being hub,” Cottrell said. “We’re creating that sense of community again with very safe and open spaces and minds.”
Brooke Road UM identified the need for the center after Ken-Rock Community Center moved from 11th Street, near Brook Road, to Adams Street in the central city a few years ago. The Rockford Public Library also closed its 11th Street branch about three years ago.
“It’s really been a resource desert here for a while, and we’re just trying to fill some of those gaps,” Johnicker said.
Many of the programs at Brooke Road Community Center are in Spanish, and the congregation has a growing number of people from Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African countries who worship in Swahili on Sundays at noon.
“Being able to read is life-changing, but for parents who are learning to read in English themselves or are so busy caring for their families by working two jobs or more, it can be a real challenge to spend time reading with kids,” Johnicker said. “Our intergenerational, volunteer-driven approach will make a big difference for kids here. As we develop our methods, we’re writing a how-to guide for other faith communities that would like to replicate literacy programs like this in their neighborhoods.”
Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors will have two community navigators at the center to help people with citizenship classes, driver’s license services, registering for school, child care and other necessities. Rock Valley College will also have its pre-citizenship class for seniors, Cottrell said.
“Seeing the excitement for the center and the willing support already makes me so proud of Rockford. This community deserves safe spaces to learn and grow, and to teach us how to connect again after the pandemic,” Cottrell said. “I am so looking forward to seeing all of the individuals and families coming together here, gaining a sense of hope, consistency and community like we haven’t been able to see in awhile.”