Bill and Joyce Russ, long-time faithful members of Centennial UMC in Rockford, Ill., and life-long farmers on the north side of the city, made a gift of land in 2004 to the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) with the dream that the land, which brought forth a harvest of grain, would bring forth a harvest of souls for the glory of God.
After much dreaming and demographic work, the NIC built the community-center style, 27,500 square foot building called Hilltop Ministry Center on 19 acres of the land in Machesney Park. The plan was to have a center for ministry partners to provide childcare, counseling, a coffee shop, a gymnasium, and a community of faith. All this came to pass in 2008.
Over the course of the next several years, the building served the needs of the community. What became the UM new faith community, New Life, worshipped and gathered weekly. Other groups, ranging from ball teams to line dancers and a community theater, used the building for gatherings and practices. And the 13,000 square feet of childcare space housed Hand-in-Hand childcare. Financially, the shared-space partners helped the NIC meet the mortgage payments on the building.
That financial reality changed dramatically in the fall of 2014 when the childcare program moved out. The full mortgage responsibility weighed heavily on our NIC budget.
A task force worked over the course of many months to find new ministry partners to fill the space – all to no avail. We turned to the help of a commercial realtor. After many unrealized possibilities, a new opportunity came: Easterseals was highly interested in the space – actually the whole building!
Their Rockford school for children and adolescents with autism and other special needs had outgrown two other buildings in Rockford (they serve students from several area school districts). When they walked into the Hilltop building, they knew they didn’t want to look any further.
“Easterseals has been a leader in providing services for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities for more than 25 years,” said Easterseals President and CEO Tim Muri. “Easterseals is proud of the work we do in the Rockford Region, serving more than 2,800 local families, across our four programs. We are delighted with the support we receive from the local community, which helped make the expansion of Easterseals Academy possible.”
After months of working out the details, the Hilltop Ministry center building was sold in March of this year to Easterseals. This sale covered the balance of the NIC outstanding mortgage, leaving us debt-free and thus relieving our NIC budget.
The new campus in Machesney Park will have a full-sized gym, stage, playground and additional areas for job and vocational training.
“Our students will continue to benefit from Easterseals Academy’s individualized curriculum and activities,” said Principal Jacque Ruch. “We are delighted with the additional opportunities available to our students with the purchase of our very own campus with plenty of places for them to live, learn, work and play.”
Does this end Bill and Joyce’s dream? No! First of all, the New Life UM congregation remains dedicated to ministry in the community and will remain worshipping in the building. Easterseals has extended an initial two-year lease to the New Life congregation free of charge. In addition, Bill and Joyce rejoiced when they heard about Easterseals coming to their former farmland. The Russes had been involved in a special-needs school at Centennial UMC years ago. They saw this as a way for that interest to continue! So in two ways, Bill and Joyce’s dreams live on!
Bill Russ died this past January at the farmstead he had lived on for so long. Out the west window of that house, you can see the Hilltop building across the field. This year, Joyce will continue to worship with her New Life family on Saturday nights and her Centennial family on Sunday mornings. And this spring she will watch the building go through renovations and expansions, as Easterseals makes ready to move in.
On that land where crops were once harvested, people’s lives will continue to be touched and changed and made new through the ongoing ministry of New Life and through the loving work of Easterseals. And that original farm homestead includes 10 acres that the NIC has for future ministry needs. Thanks be to God for new possibilities!