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Inspiring the 815: A year in review of the people making our home a better place

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(WREX) — 2020.

How do you really describe what the year was?

It was a time plagued with adversity at every corner with all of us just wondering how we were going to get through it.

However, there were also quite a few people that thought of others along with or even before themselves.

Some of them appeared on our airways this year to provide service or even a little hope to all of us through this trecherous time.

Those trying to inspire the 815.

The year began in Byron, with the city's rotary club.

Byron Rotary has grown over the last decade to bring the community together under the national rotary club umbrella.

Kay King runs the Byron chapter as a retiree wanting to make a difference in the place she calls home.

That impact included a $2,000 donation to the Byron High School Food Pantry, which provided students anything from a snack to get them through the day to groceries and hygeine products to take home to families in need.

Then came a true story of overcoming adversity.

Rex Randall spent over a decade battling heroin addiction, before a stay at the Rockford Rescue Mission put him on a new path, leading him to a full time job and the life of a married man.

This powerful story was followed by a month filled with providing for our kids.

Rhonda Hall leading Landstar's efforts to get students tutoring and reading help while Teen Turf in Amboy provided kids a safe place to go after school to have fun and learn.

We returned to Rockford to find a member of Disney royalty.

Queen Elsa herself.

She took time away from her business in Arendelle to help kids and members of Mosaic Rockford feel special.

We then head west to Immanuel Lutheran in Freeport where a pair of Senior Saints, Diane Sorn and Donna Schopf, take time out of their days to share stories with the younger generation.

Plugging through February, we came upon a more serious topic: heart health.

Something Heather Baker knows all about as she devotes her time to educating kids and adults alike on what to do if someone goes into cardiac arrest.

As we leave February for March, the theme of kids returns.

The Institute of Languages, Mathmatics and Sciences is created to help tutor students and find adults a job.

Then we went a little younger, about as young as you can get.

However, Lane Schabaker is having a big impact as the youngest ever ambassabor for Down Syndrome.

His efforts are joined in spirit and song by JP and Sam Von Arx.

Sam has down syndrome and his brother JP is a musician hoping to spread awareness through his music about the condition.

Off to the hospital we go now (not what you're thinking just yet) to honor Barb Johnson as she celebrates 50 years as a nurse at SwedishAmerican.

After her surprise is a rare trip across the border into Beloit.

We say hello to Robert Ewald at Fresh Horizons, a branding business built out of Robert's weight loss journey.

Our visit with Robert is right about when everything changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic was spreading through the U.S., Illinois and the 815.

However, that didn't extinguish the spirit of our heroes at home.

Whether it was Julianna Becker decorating her home to brighen people's day, Eric and Tiffany Czerwin creating an online Rockford Pride Week or Laurie Evans becoming the mobile librarian delivering books to students now learning from home.

As we work through April, we get a chance to hear first hand from one of the true heroes of 2020.

Healthcare workers, in the form of Brittany Bankes.

The SwedishAmerican nurse traded Rockford for NYC to assist at the epicenter of the pandemic at the time.

Back here at home, the efforts to help the community stay standing grew.

High schooler Jeff Snedegar collected games and books for the Boys and Girls Club while online organization Because of Ruth worked to help single parent homes get through their normal obstacles on top of the new challenges being presented.

Now we're in the middle of May.

Summer was approaching and the school year was ending with all students not even at school to say goodbye to their teachers.

That's when an idea hatched out of Durand, as Ashlee Dietmeier created a traveling sign to put in her students yards so they know she's thinking about them.

Another object of affecition was created by Austin Nelson, who made wristbands to give to the community to support frontline workers.

Particularly RMTD workers who he'd see on his bus rides every day.

Into June now, the sun beating down and kids abound doing summer chores like mowing the lawn.

A task Keelan Young turned into a chance to help Children's Safe Harbor for everything they've done for him and his family.

As Keelan cuts grass, Kris Wilcoxen packs gift bags to deliver to residents at Goldie B. Floberg Center.

A regular "Kris Cringle" if you will.

Along with this early Christmas came the anniversary of the Superhero Center for Autism.

The center struggled once COVID-19 hit but community support kept it open and able to help its clients from afar.

As the Superhero Center is just beginning its career, we helped wrap up another.

Donna Apgar was a long time volunteer and adoption coordinator at Winnebago County Animal Services as well as a weekly guest on 13 News at Noon.

She's now enjoying retirement with her husband but knows she will never be fully done with animals.

We're in July now.

The pandemic is in full force.

So much so that Womanspace started an initiative to make 10,000 face masks to give to the community.

As they sew away, Burn N' Bush gets in tune to play music through Facebook Live and raise money for the businesses that cancelled their gigs due to the virus.

The Nikolas Ritchchel Foundation continued helping sick people live their dreams, Donna Burlo shared her knowledge of horses like she does with all the kids in Boone County, and Amber Cornford stood as a symbol of beating the odds as a nurse at MercyHealth.

August began with highlighting a man committed to bringing people togther.

Mustafa Abdall came to Rockford via the middle east and spends everyday trying to expand the network that is the 815.

This leads us to another stop in Beloit at Blue Collar Coffee where workers encouragepaying it foward to your friends, family, complete strangers and as of late first responders.

We hop back into Illinois for a stop in Capron where Rebeca Pozas rallies her community to bolster Empower Boone's diaper drive.

From there it's back to SwedishAmerican now as its Riverwest Clinic collected backpacks for families to get kids ready to go back to school (time really flies over summer doesn't it).

September starts with the Girl Scouts.

Gabbie Brewer earned the organizations highest honor for her work with HooHaven animal sanctuary.

We circle back with Childern's Safe Harbor, now sitting with its leader Megan Brechon to learn how she is trying to lead the charge against domestic violence here at home.

A message of protecting others echoed by Lisa's Litte Rescue in Winnebago as it nurses woodland critters back to health.

It's time to hit the road and thankful we get a lift from a galaxy far, far away.

Todd Ehrhardt is rolling in a custom Star Wars themed truck thanks to the kindness and connection he made at Midcoast Customs.

Our trip takes us to Cub Scout Pack 409's latest meeting, with John Cabrera being recognized as one of few to earn every merit badge possible.

Congraulations turn into reconstruction as George Tillet used all the strength in his 77-year-old body to fix the Harlem Cemetery wall after a drunk driver crashes into it.

As we continue through October we hear a story of survival.

That of KeKe Bell who is using her fight against breast cancer to inspire others to get over that hill (or Mt. Everest as she refers to it."

As Keke pushes people to take care of their health, Brandon Gordon keeps a watchful eye on our youth to make them the best they can as they near adulthood.

October ends with something sweet, but it's not Halloween candy.

It's donuts and the kind heart of Matthew Bartsch to deliver them to the SwedishAmerican clinics across the area.

If sweets aren't your thing you can reach out to Tikisha Ellis.

Her catering business Works of Faith is the product of persistance to get to where she wanted to be in life.

We now walk into a couple weeks of kids taking the lead to help.

Victoria Kuzlik continued her work through Coats for Hope to help domestic violence survivors while Jackson and Jonah Johnson form the Doggy Doo Crew to scoop up help for their cousin suffering from a brain tumor.

For the week of Thanksgiving, it seems only right to talk about the power of family.

Petrea Meier was inspired by her sister's journey through domestic violence to start a donation fund for the Rockford Family Peace Center.

We've now reached the final frame of 2020.

To no surprise, positivity was still in the air.

Lori-Beach Grass continued her weekly online meetups with kids needing to express themselves through reading and writing.

Peter Blassage powered through his mail carrier route while raising awareness for our soliders overseas.

Hosea Harris and Melinda Cattell delivered food to families in need on behalf of Auburn Highschool.

Craft + Foster shared their handmade candle business and their dreams to create something bigger in the communtiy to round out the year.

2020 is over but it wasn't all a bleak picture of isolation.

So many people in our area made the best of it.

Not for them, but for all of us.

Inspiring all of the 815.

The best part is there are still so many people making a differecne and we are excited to continue sharing them with you.

As always we need your help to do that so please fill out at nomination form if you know of anyone making our home a better place or reach out to

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Evan Leake

Evan Leake anchors for 13 News Today and 13 News at Noon. Evan grew up in Darien, Illinois, a south-west suburb of Chicago. He came to WREX in 2017 and worked his way to the anchor desk in May of 2019. He coordinates both the Teacher of the Week and Inspiring 815 series for 13 News. You can connect with Evan at or Evan Leake on Facebook.

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