All posts in “Children”

Angel Tree opportunity is here

Starting Sunday, Dec. 1, First Free Rockford is again participating in Angel Tree, a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship. The program delivers gifts, a gospel message and personal message of love to kids on behalf of their incarcerated parent.

This year, more than 7,000 churches and groups have committed to serve more than 300,000 kids across the country. First Free is one of five churches in Rockford, and one of eight in Winnebago County, taking part, said Angel Tree Program Specialist Danielle Kruger.

Tomah Crabb’s son, Bernard, is incarcerated in the Lincoln (Ill.) Correctional Center. For the past several years Buddy, as he’s better known, has signed his kids up for Angel Tree.

Tomah, of Rockford, takes care of Buddy’s kids.

“We’ve been through a lot since he’s been in prison,” she said. “He’s lost his dad.”

On a Saturday before Christmas, the Angel Tree gifts arrive for the kids: clothes, toys, “things that they like,” Tomah says. The gifts are already wrapped, with the kids’ names on them. Their predictable response: “Can we open them? Can we open them?”

“I love it, because it helps out a lot,” Tomah says.

The kids also know their dad had a hand in the gifts. It’s one way of making a hard situation a little better.

• • •

We spoke with Susan Schumacher, who organizes the Angel Tree effort at First Free.

What’s it like to get to be part of this program? And for you, what’s it been like to help people even realize that the need exists? 

Andrew and Susan Schumacher at last year’s Angel Tree preparation.

There is a lot of shame for children of prisoners, plus the longing and sense of loss. Children can feel forgotten and overlooked. The Angel Tree program lets them know that they are loved, and reminds them of Jesus’ love for them. Each child receives colorful materials that present the gospel in an age-appropriate way. Plus, each family can request a beautiful, free children’s Bible.

How many families is First Free helping this year?

We will be serving 56 kids in 16 families.  Also, the Angel Tree organization asked us to partner this year with Christ Tamil Church (Wheaton) to deliver their gifts in Rockford for them. They are purchasing gifts for 8 families and will bring them to us for delivery.

What are the dates people can take part?

People can select their Angel children from the tree in the lobby beginning this Sunday, Dec. 1. Gifts should be wrapped and returned to the church by Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Volunteers are needed to help pack the gifts at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18. We also need drivers to help deliver them at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21. Interested volunteers can contact me by email : sueschu13 [at] hotmail [dot] com or call the church at 815-877-7046.

Any other long-term plans for First Free’s involvement in this?

I would like to develop some kind of an ongoing outreach program in which we continue contact with the children and invite them to youth activities at our church.




Meet Kari Heckler

By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald

Kari Heckler 

This summer, as Kari Heckler debated whether to apply for the position of First Free Kids Director, she asked God to give her a sign.

“That’s not me,” she says of the request. “I’m very factual about stuff.”

She drove her son, Spencer, to his summer job at Summit Ministries near Colorado Springs, and then spent a few extra days in the mountains by herself. Each day, she drove by a church with its name carved into a huge stone slab: First Evangelical Free Church.

Picture of church sign reference by Kari Heckler“I looked at that and I thought, well, that’s a sign.”

During those days in the mountains, Kari set a goal of ascending the Manitou Incline, which climbs 2,000 feet in about a mile. The trail used to be part of the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway until the track bed was washed out by a 1990 rockslide. Since then it has served as a fitness challenge for hikers and runners.

A year ago, Kari could hardly walk due to problems in both Achilles tendons. A year before that, she went blind for a month when her optic nerve swelled. This year, she left a youth ministry position at another Rockford church, thinking it was time to step away from church work — what she calls “The Machine.”

Now in Colorado’s thin air, somehow she was hiking up the Incline’s nearly 3,000 steps, passing much younger hikers who were doubled over and vomiting. When she reached her target point along the trail, she looked out on the incredible beauty below and felt very small. It was one of those God moments.

Kari Heckler's view of Manitou Incline

The Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs, Colorado

“I felt like I had my strength and my joy in the Lord back,” she says. “I felt like I let go with my fists of some things that I needed to put behind me. Health issues, spiritual things, just to know that God can help us get up those mountains. I couldn’t have done it myself. I know I couldn’t have.

“And the Lord just spoke to me so clearly: ‘You’ve got to let it go. You’ll be fine. I’m not done with you yet. You need to get back into the Machine and go.’ And there was just this strength that came: spiritually, emotionally, physically.”

When Kari got home, she sent her resume to First Free and things moved quickly from there. She started as Kids Director on Sept. 3. Even before she knew she got the job, she thought about two particular pieces of décor for her office: a photo showing the steps of the Manitou Incline, and another showing “First Evangelical Free Church” carved into that stone.

“If I ever have a rough day and feel overwhelmed, I can look at that picture and remember that God brought me here.”

Getting to know Kari Heckler


Married to Chris for 33 years. They met at Sterling High School. Six kids: Skyler, 31; Shaylee, 27; Sedric, 23; Shane, 21; Spencer, 21; and Sierra, 17.

Four of the kids are adopted. Kari had a rocky childhood, and her own experience steered her and Chris toward adoption, foster care and ministry with at-risk kids.

Kari Heckler's Family

The Heckler family (L to R): Shane, Sierra, Spencer, Shaylee, Sedric, Kari and Chris (Skyler pictured below)

Kari Heckler's son Skyler.

Skyler, 31, serves in the U.S. Navy.


Kari and Chris both came to Christ right after they got married.

Ministry work

  • YWCA, Sterling – Children of Domestic Violence program
  • Metro Christian Center, Rockford – director of nursery, then youth pastor
  • Managed Bible Book Center in Rockford
  • New City (now called Gracepoint) Gospel Fellowship outside New York City – preschool ministry, children’s church
  • Rock Church, Rockford – youth ministry director


(The Kids director oversees programs for preschool through grade 5)

“The main thing is kids need to know the Lord as their savior. That is why we do this. The way to get to that with this age group is to be very biblically driven and teach them doctrine, so they can stand on the Word of God.”

“Whether it’s with teenagers or children, I’m more relational. I’m going to try to get to know them. Sit down and play with Legos with them at the beginning. I don’t stand back and watch.”

“In every ministry I’ve worked in, I’ve been more like an aunt than a teacher or a pastor. Like I’m an extended part of their family. And I’d like to see the whole church feel that way to them. When they come to First Free, they feel like they’re home.”


“I have a very strong conviction with our fourth and fifth graders to remember that they are more like high schoolers used to be, in terms of how much they are exposed to. Sexuality and sexual identity – kids are being indoctrinated. Also issues like self-esteem and self-harm. We need to address those topics with them younger. I hate that, but I also know it’s one reason I’ve been called to children’s ministry. We cannot put our heads in the sand. Kids today live in a totally different world than we did.”


“I’m excited that First Free is going to be having a parenting seminar. I wish drop-and-run parents could be a thing of the past. They can be part of this, too. I hope to see the parents committed to their kids having a Christian education here.”


Provide mentoring opportunities for leaders to have consistent relationships with the kids, especially through small groups as the kids get older.

Youth leaders

“One thing I love about Summerama is that kids help in ministry and serving. Because that’s where they’re going to learn. If you tell them to prepare a lesson, that’s where they’re going to learn.”

Kari Heckler’s Favorites

Food: Brownies with a lot of frosting; pizza
Band: Switchfoot
Movie: Star Wars (the original)


Mom’s Day Out a longtime resource for Rockford-area families

Mom’s Day Out — a special ministry for children and families at First Free Rockford — celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

The ministry started as a pilot program in 1989, created as a part-time, Christ-centered child care resource for parents. Three decades ago, moms mostly did the sign-up, but today, fathers and even grandparents are involved in the program, too.

“We’re seeing second generations coming through now,” said Patti Clauson, Mom’s Day Out Director.

Patti has been here since the beginning. She said a First Free member first saw a similar program in the south back in the 1980s and brought the idea back to Rockford.

Mom’s Day Out classroom at First Free Rockford – Rockford, Illinois

Families today can enroll their children starting at 1-year through pre-kindergarten age from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and/or Fridays.

Mom’s Day Out is open to anyone in the community – not just church members. Patti said the program draws people from all backgrounds, including families from outside the U.S. who have relocated to Rockford to work in such industries as aerospace, manufacturing and health care.

Patti Clauson, Director of Mom’s Day Out

“What’s so cool is we’ll have moms who don’t know anyone in town, so they seek out a church that will be a safe place. After a few years, they’ve got play groups, the kids are enrolled in summer day camp,” Patti said. “Our goal is to bridge families from not knowing anyone to finding a home and an extended family here.”

About 120 children attend Mom’s Day Out each day. Bible-based learning aims to teach kids about good values such as sharing, helping each other, comforting a friend and much more. A typical day may include songs, counting, learning days of the week, crafts, a Bible story, and playing in the gym or on the playground.

Crucial to the program’s success has been the ongoing help of church staff and members who volunteer their time to help with activities. Mom’s Day Out also employs more than 20 teachers, meaning it’s a good opportunity for educators looking for an alternative to full-time work.

That’s how Patti got started, in fact. She was a teacher looking for care for her young daughter at the time. She started teaching, then became assistant director and then director.

“It was all God’s planning,” she said. “This is where I was meant to be.”

Mom’s Day Out runs a similar schedule to the school year calendar, starting the week after Labor Day and ending the week before Memorial Day. Registration for the next session starts in May. Visit for more information, or call 815-877-7046.

Parenting in a Technological World


We are in the midst of our first annual Family Summit. This is an opportunity for us to come together of all ages to worship and learn together. Our goal is to encourage all families of our church to look to Jesus together. Last night we discussed how we can look to Jesus while parenting in a technological world.

I was privileged to be able to teach the parents on this topic. My primary goal was to give very practical resources to the parents to help monitor and protect their student from addictions and dangers. But before I summarize those resources, I want to remind us of why we need to set up boundaries and rules with technology.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in the house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise.
Deuteronomy 6:5-7

As parents and the leading adults in a child’s life; your job is to create an culture in your home that is centered on loving God. In all things, at all times, you must be encouraging your student to love the Lord with everything they have. And that includes technology.

These resources below are suggestions to help protect and monitor your student. You best know your student and their habits, so you decide what is helpful.

Movies and TV:
Have you ever wondered if the show or movie your family is about to watch is appropriate? Well with these two apps, you can not only learn what the movie is about but also what inappropriate content is in the movie. Both of these apps are free!

  • Plugged In: This app comes from “Focus on the Family”. This app gives you a plot summary, the positive elements, the negative elements, and the potential   spiritual elements. This app is really solid for recent movies.
  • IMDB: This app is a big go-to for me. This app shows you all the actors, trailers, and information you could ever need on a movie or show. But the best part is that for each TV show and movie, there is a section called “parent’s guide”. This will tell you all of the inappropriate content in the movie or show. And in some shows, it goes episode by episode.

Built In Phone Settings:
Your smart phone and tablet have settings built in that just need to be turned on. I am going to share two settings in an iphone or ipad. There are several more and here is a link for more information.

(If you are an android user, here is a link with instructions for you. But I would recommend installing another filtering program…like mobicip.)

  • Guided Access: This setting, when turned on, only allows the user to remain in a   single app. So if you have a child who loves to play a game on your ipad, but you are fearful they will accidentally send an email or delete something, turn on   guided access. The only way for them to turn off this feature is to put in your customized pin code. This feature also allows you to set up time limits so that your child or student doesn’t play the game too long.


  • Restrictions: This setting is a must for all apple devices in your house. Under this setting, you can restrict adult content from being searched on websites. So if your child or student is trying to search for something inappropriate, it will block them. Also, this setting allows you to turn off the ability to download apps, movies, facetime, etc.


Programs, Filters, and Monitoring:
Laptops and Home Computer Filtering:
If you have a home computer or a laptop in your home, you may want to make sure that there is a program installed to monitor and filter all internet activity.

  • Covenant Eyes: This is a solid program that filters out content and sends you, the parent, reports of what your child is searching for online. It costs $15 a month and is worth it.
  • X3 Watch: This is a free program that works great. It does not filter but it tracks Internet activity and sends reports of inappropriate searches.

Limiting Time on Devices:
If you have a phone or tablet addicted child, then you may want to look into setting up time limits.

  • Screen Time: This app allows you to set up time limits, schedules, and shut down on devices. There is both a paid and free version.

Phone Browsers:
This is the big one. With the continually rise of pornography, we must be doing all that we can to protect our student. If you have a filtering app for their phones, this will protect them from accidental searches and addictions.

  • Mobicip: This is the best one out there. This program costs only $40 a year. And this program sets up content filters, time limits, and sends you internet history reports. I recommend this app even with the built in settings on your       phone…because there are always loopholes.

House Rules:
The last bit of practical advice I can give is to set up technology house rules. Things that you set up that everyone in the family must abide by. Here are a couple examples:

  • Time Restrictions: Maybe you don’t want anyone on their phones after 9pm. Maybe you don’t want to watch more than 3 hours of TV a day.
  • Charging Stations: I would recommend setting up a location where your kids’ phones and devices can be charged overnight. This well help your child be able to get the sleep they need without being distracted by their device. But also, it protects your student from inappropriate searching when no one is looking. Set up a power strip in your bedroom or in the kitchen and you have your charging station.

You know your family best. So if any of this is helpful for you, then great! If there is anything that we can do to help you in this area, let us know. Thanks for helping your family look to Jesus.