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Do It Yourself

“Eric Neubauer was a friend who I’ve looked up to for a long time.

His story goes beyond helping a troubled neighborhood out by turning a lot into a skatepark; he has been a mentor and father figure to a lot of fatherless and lost young skateboarders throughout the years (including myself). I’m glad to be able to tell his story, although it wasn’t easy getting him to talk about himself (he’s as humble as a monk to the extent that our interviews were more filled with philosophizing about skateboarding, learning, teaching, failing, and persistence rather than what he’s accomplished).

I hope his humility, hard work, and acceptance of failure is a tenet you can keep in mind, as I do when struggling with personal battles both every day and in the future.”

Bing Liu

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Left arm. Right arm. Breathe. Repeat.

Paul is the type of person that just uplifts all around him by pushing forward with an unstoppable drive. Yet, he is humble. He is not one to seek the spotlight, and that’s why this piece was so revealing to those closest to him.

I first met him at the Mass Communication Program down at Rock Valley College. It was a program I went through myself, so I was coming back to see how much the program had changed. Paul didn’t stand out just because he was the oldest guy in the room, but because he was the wisest in the room. He asked questions. He wanted to know more. Be more informed. Knowing full well that asking the questions were not showing his lack of knowledge, but seizing the moment to learn and grow.

We met later, as he wanted to get more info about filmmaking techniques for a piece he was making. No, the piece was not a zombie movie. It was not an action flick. It was not some escapist piece created for fun… He wanted to raise the quality of a documentary he was filming to tell the story of two of his students that had lost to heroin addiction and let people know about the experiences he’s seen with regards to the epidemic.

Paul Dryden Stalter is an ever curious, loyal, fun, and energizing man.

This is his story told by him.

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The Greatest “Thank You”

Once a year on a late September weekend, you’ll find Sam Hiser—along with over 1,000 of his friends—eating, drinking, and dodging enemy fire on acres of land at Rockford’s Midway Village. Dressed to the hilt in World War II period uniforms, complete with impeccably authentic personal items, the men and women meet to create living history and reenact live-action battle scenarios. Sam, a member of the Tri-State Living History Association, hails from Rockford, but his counterparts come from across the country to take part in the event—the largest World War II era reenactment in the United States. What makes it the biggest? Over 1,000 uniformed reenactors from 40 states, representing soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, France, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Japan, Italy and Germany, along with 70 to 80 vintage tanks, half-tracks and other 1940s era military vehicles.

Safety and authenticity—down to the most precise details—are paramount to the event. Sam and many of his fellow reenactors even eat from a historically accurate full field kitchen, under the watchful eye of Byron Vinyard (who’ll likely be stirring up white gravy for ‘shit on a shingle,’ the era’s signature military issue food). Byron, Sam and the other reenactors pay particular attention to every detail of their impressions, spending hours on research and dollars out of pocket, in order to tell the soldiers’ true stories. The reenactors aren’t creating a live-action war game, they are portraying and participating in a part of World War II history. By telling these stories effectively, they honor the veterans who they so deeply appreciate.

Every reenactor has their own personal motivation for contributing to the event; Sam’s comes from his interest in history and both his grandfathers’ service, but also the relationships he’s created while working with many World War II vets. Reenacting is not the product of a passing whim; potential reenactors must exhibit their knowledge and interest in order to join their parent association. Sam and his wife dressed in period attire as part of his ‘audition’ for his impression.

One unique event in and of itself doesn’t generally give a city character, but World War II Days brings many people of character—honoring those who have served—to this city.

“We have to tell their story.”
–Byron Vinyard
This year’s Midway Village Museum’s World War II Days event takes place September 21 and 22.

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Opportunity in the Making

It started with a tweet, and now Rockford, IL is partnering with ETSY to help get it back to the roots. Artisan. Hand made. Opportunity in the Making.

Story by Dana Mauriello

Last August, Mayor Larry Morrissey of Rockford, Illinois tweeted at Etsy’s CEO, Chad Dickerson: “Since we need an ‘Etsy Economy’ has Etsy begun any partnerships with high schools or job training? We’d love to explore.” Kari McDonald, the captain of the Rockford Etsy Team, joined in on the dialogue: “I’d love to see where this leads! Rockford Etsy Team is willing to help.” With these two tweets, we got to work.

Rockford is a city of 150,000 people, located two hours west of Chicago. Formerly a manufacturing hub, its keystone employers have left the city, ushering in a wave of high unemployment. One of the benefits of having a strong manufacturing history, however, is that many residents already have skills in the arts (such as watchmaking and furniture making) that were once the backbone of the local economy. Mayor Morrissey is an enthusiastic advocate of giving Rockford residents the tools that they need to turn these skills into economic opportunity and we’re eager to support this vision.

A group of Etsy Admin went to Rockford in November to further explore the needs of the city and opportunities to work together. We were greeted by a diverse group of over 70 stakeholders who gathered to share their thoughts on how Etsy could affect local constituents.

Our visit led to a plan for Etsy and Rockford to co-create a Craft Entrepreneurship Curriculum, with Etsy’s platform and marketplace as the learning lab. The aim of the project is to teach people that if they have a craft skill, entrepreneurship and economic opportunity are within reach. Starting in September, the curriculum will be taught by local Rockford teachers to a diverse range of students.

We don’t expect every student to become an Etsy seller, but rather to apply the skills they learn to any entrepreneurial path they want to follow. We do believe, however, along with the city of Rockford, that this will lead to real economic impact.

This pilot program has the potential to be not just what Mayor Morrissey calls a “pathway to prosperity” for Rockford, but a blueprint for similar programs across the country and around the world. We look to the Etsy community as role models for others dreaming of an entrepreneurial path and demonstrating the desire to support independent, creative businesses, built on human interactions. Thank you for inspiring us, the city of Rockford, and a wave of future entrepreneurs that are following in your footsteps.

If you are interested in learning more about this project or talking to us about how Etsy can empower economic development in your area, please get in touch with us at [email protected] We want to hear about initiatives that we can apply our learnings to after the Rockford pilot program concludes.

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Potato Shak

Peter Avramopoulos arrived in Rockford, Illinois in the late 1960s. His father, seeking prosperity, had brought his whole family from Greece by boat. Pete’s prosperity came in the form of the opportunity to do well for himself and his immediate family. As owner of the Potato Shak, the second restaurant that the Avramopoulos family has owned, he’s created a destination for many local residents. The first, Pete’s Snack Shack. was lost in the 1980s Midway Theater fire.

Pete’s older brother George Avramopoulos, with his mild manner and overall energy for life, is one of the reasons so many people frequent the Potato Shak. He’s the type of guy who wants to shake your hand, ask how you are and is genuinely happy to see you. He engages in conversation with all who enter, but this story becomes truly unique when polite conversation turns into reality and becomes a dream fulfilled.

Ken Johnson, a retired airline pilot, has been introducing people to flying for years. It’s a personal point of pride for him to bring wonder to the eyes of people who have never flown above Rockford, Illinois. To fly about our city at 3,000 feet brings about a true sense of wonder.

This past year, Ken took the guys up in the air on his own offer and since their original flight, George has been flying with him many Tuesdays. There’s a glimmer in George’s eye when he talks of flying; Ken has truly made the dreams of George, our beloved George, a reality.

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Our Curiosity

When Forest City Gear first aspired to be world-class gear manufacturers, they couldn’t have imagined that someday they would surpass that boundary. Perhaps universe-class best describes them now? With one rover mission under their belts, and now with over 75 of their gears currently on Mars in the highly anticipated Curiosity rover, those original aspirations have been surpassed.

Founded by husband and wife Stetler and Evelyn Young in 1955, Forest City Gear is a family-owned company in Roscoe, Illinois. Their son Fred Young is now CEO, but he grew up watching his parents work hard and re-invest their profits in the company — this is how they are so successful. By the late ‘60s, the company was purchasing at least one new gear machine a year. By re-investing 25-40% of company profit back into itself, Forest City Gear has developed a reputation of being one of the best gear companies in this universe.

In addition to equipment, the Young family invests in its employees, creating a devoted workforce. “We believe we have one of the best equipped gear shops in the world. This includes both equipment and employees, a legacy of Forest City Gear for over 50 years,” according to Fred Young. When Fred speaks to prospective employees, he does not offer them a job. He offers them a career.

What might be more remarkable than creating crucial equipment destined for Mars? For a second time? Well, creating a thriving motivated company culture with a team of career employees—the kind who lie in bed at night thinking, “what can I do in the morning when I get there?” The kind who take on responsibility, impose their own high standards and like Amy Sovina, have the “mindset something I touched is now on the surface of Mars.”

By creating an atmosphere of excellence and pride, Forest City Gear has created a legacy for its individuals, its employees and its future.

We should all be proud of their accomplishments as they are a small shop who’s reputation the world over is one of excellence. Our region benefits by association, and by the generosity of their spirit.

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Buddy Baseball

Starting in June, families come to to the baseball diamonds at Guilford to something special in this community. Buddy Baseball. You see smiles. Cheers. “Hit the ball! Don’t look at me! Run!” The announcer gets on the mic: “Next up to bat, is Joshua” Everyone in the bleachers cheers him on “Keep your eye on the ball” “Let’s go, Josh.” “Go, Joshua!” The program does a great deal for the kids within the program, but also for the volunteer Buddies who run the bases with the kids. You see the joy in the kid’s face who connects with the ball, who instead of running to first base, he looks back to his dad with a shocked smile seeming to say “I did it!”

In this story of Buddy Baseball, we start with Matthew Lapp and see how he interacts with his family at home. He is most certainly loved, but there is only so much a loving family can do for Matthew in the world. The frustration with seeing his sister play soccer does cause issue… but that’s where Buddy Baseball helps. Sherri White started Buddy Baseball 4 years ago, and Matthew Lapp was the first to sign up for the program. Sherri saw a need for a “buddy” type program after her own son was unable to participate in some of the other baseball programs in the way he wanted to participate. He needed a pinch runner. Sherri knew there was a solution and ran with the idea of Buddy Baseball, creating a program that she and the Rockford Park District collaborated on.

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Fabric & Color Patterns

The flag is more than just fabric and color patterns. It’s a reminder… a point of reference, it gives us a way collectively to think about how far we’ve come and yet how far we have to go. People gave their lives so that we could live in a better country, and it’s our responsibility to pick up that mantle and move it forward. We can’t settle for disunity. We have to find ways to keep on perfecting that union. It captures our collective memory as well as collective our desire to be the best that we can be and the greatest we can be.

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Team Fur Bandit

“Did I just really see that?” It was the middle of December, and on a snow soaked Sunday afternoon a couple dozen fur covered bikes were sprinting down East State Street. Directly after this mass of bikes was a white truck with orange alert lights blazing, hauling a trailer with Team Fur Bandit on it. For the past two years, this has been a common sight during some of the dreariest of all gray winter days. They say it, and you’ve got to believe it: “We’re bandits because we steal your attention.” These charity bikes rides were organized by DJ Wilson, and this all started after he and his friend got the idea to decorate their bikes during the RAGBRAI “the oldest, longest, largest bicycle tour” across Iowa.

This is a story that has us look back and discover with DJ, how all the pieces came together. This is Team Fur Bandit.

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Hometown History

There are two things you can do when someone labels you. You can either accept it or prove it wrong. Darcy Hill is the Drama teacher at the Lutheran Academy. Every year she puts on a play with her 4th-grade students. However, this was not like every other year.

Darcy is the type of lady that will write an entire production, just to get to know the community she lives in better. That’s what this piece was. Years ago when she moved to Rockford, she felt this pride and was curious. Her grandfather used to tell her all the old stories about Camp Grant, and she had seen “A League of Their Own.” But, there was more to the story… so she wrote it and put it on the shelf. Her own project done.

This year, in response to magazine articles listing Rockford 9th most dangerous, and several other ratings and labels, she took the play off the shelf. It then became a magnet. People were drawn to the production. People agreed that the history of Rockford needed to be told.