Hometown Hero Has Dedicated 40 Years to Social Activism in IL
When I read the nomination letter about this week's Hometown Hero, Valeri DeCastris, I couldn't help but think of a quote from author Mandy Hale;
There is nothing more beautiful than someone who goes out of their way to make life beautiful for others.
I may not know Valeri personally, but the "few" accomplishments her husband David included in his nomination letter prove to me that Valeri is nothing short of extraordinary...
I nominate my wife Valeri DeCastris because she is a relentless and tireless social activist, exemplified by her notable achievements throughout over four decades of community volunteerism throughout Illinois. And her hometown of Rockford has been fortunate to benefit from her altruism. Her work as an effective change agent is too extensive to list here, but I will try to highlight a few of her successes. Her activism began when she was an undergraduate student in biology at Southern Illinois University, working 30 hours a week as a scientist in a research laboratory and serving on boards of social justice organizations. She testified to state agencies in Springfield and southern Illinois on utility and low-income issues and helped to create an Energy Division in city government. Carbondale’s Mayor appointed her to an advisory position in city energy planning and she set up oil recycling on campus as a graduate student, while also working full-time in scientific research at the university. Moving to Springfield to work for the Illinois Legislature as a researcher, at her father's and the late State Representative Zeke Giorgi’s suggestion, she got more involved in politics and helped create a peace center and fair-trade goods store there that got much acclaim. She served in leadership positions on several notable non-profit and political boards and was elected to the Citizens Utility Board, Illinois’ largest consumer advocacy organization. But she tired of Springfield’s round-the-clock politics, and missed Rockford. She’d get wistful after attending Festa Italiana or visiting her family. When her Dad went to sell his parents’ south Rockford home, she made the decision to move into it after a 20-year absence from Rockford. It wasn’t easy. He said “Val Eddy’s daughter is going to live on Cunningham Street? You do everything backwards. The Italians have all left. Wait till something bad happens and then you’ll learn.” But he relented after lots of coaxing, as the neighborhood was somewhat troubled then in the 1980s. So, every other weekend for seven years, while we were dating, we’d leave Springfield on Friday after working at our state jobs and essentially camp out at this unfurnished house, restoring it slowly and going back to Springfield on Sunday night again. Valeri’s family has lived in this home on Cunningham Street since 1923. We finally moved here, got married, and went to work helping to reinvigorate the neighborhood and Rockford. Valeri brought her skills, honed in Carbondale and Springfield, back home and has made a real difference in Rockford, a city she actively promoted in Springfield. She lobbied for hundreds of thousands of dollars in infrastructure improvements, obtained grants, helped plan the design of the Morgan Street Bridge and improvements on South Main Street and served as the first executive director of SWIFTT, which works to empower and enhance south Rockford. A member of St. Ambrogio Club like her family since the 1930’s, she spearheaded Rockford’s Italian Sister City program with Ferentino, Italy. Her $10,000 state grant for lights around St. Anthony’s Church paved the way for its bronzed statuary Memory Garden depicting school children. She was an early member of the City of Gardens and was appointed by the Mayor to the city’s brownfields advisory task force. She created the Ethnic Village Neighborhood Organization and built Immigrants Park at the former site of an abandoned gas station and boarded-up home at the downtown gateway to South Rockford. She had flower planters installed on South Winnebago Street and hanging baskets and banners on the Winnebago Street Bridge, with contributions from many community partners. Against the odds of apathy, community disinvestment, prejudices, and changing demographics, Valeri has helped to raise the profile of south Rockford and downtown as safe and important historic areas in the community’s consciousness. Valeri is a possibility thinker who always asks, “why not?” and looks for innovative, progressive solutions to society’s issues. Rockford has no better friend than her and she is most deserving of this recognition for her selfless work in helping to transform our city. She has received local awards for her volunteerism, from Friends House Neighborhood Center, the Spirit of Caring from Crusader Clinic, Service Above Self from the Rotary Club and the Heritage Quarter Award from Southwest Ideas for Today and Tomorrow, Inc. (SWIFTT). She was inducted into the Italian American Hall of Fame and her creation of Immigrants Park at a gateway to south Rockford earned a National Make a Difference Day Award. She indeed is a hometown here and her transformative work to improve the quality of life for Rockfordians and revitalize and promote the south side and downtown areas of our city has also been remarkable. Her love for our city and enthusiasm for community involvement is infectious and she has greatly influenced others to likewise be active participants in our city's future.
I'm not quite sure how you properly thank someone for devoting their life to the betterment of our community, but I hope giving Valeri a $100 Amazon gift card from our friends at Gustafson's Furniture and Mattress will allow her to do a little something nice for herself for once.
Valeri, thank you for being a true inspiration in Rockford. I am in complete awe of your continued passion.
If you know someone just as extraordinary as Valeri, please nominate them to be next week's Hometown Hero, here.