Meet Toni Rowley
For Toni Rowley, her role at First Free Rockford is the latest milestone on a road filled with new adventures.
Sophia Vale
February 2, 2022

Toni became the Kids Ministry administrative assistant in August 2021, though she and her family have called First Free home for several years.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Toni found her way to Rockford after marrying her husband, Philip, a Rockford native. At the time, Toni was a third-grade teacher at a private Christian school in Minnesota and loving every minute of it. She met Philip on eHarmony in 2005 after her two closest friends, both married, coerced her into setting up a profile. 

“I just put my whole being into teaching and loved it. I wasn’t concerned about any of that,” she says with a laugh. “I just went on with my life.”

After a night out, Toni and her friends went back to one of their houses where, to Toni’s surprise, they revealed her ready-made eHarmony profile. “They were like, ‘Toni, we’re going to set you up on eHarmony,’ and I was like, ‘No you’re not!’” she says. 

Toni eventually gave in and connected with her future husband in April 2005 and “from there … it was done,” she says, smiling. They were engaged by November and married in June 2006. 

Fostering forgiveness

Fast forward to 2012. After several challenging years of trying to start a family, Toni and Phil decided to grow their family through foster adoption. “It was frustrating and discouraging, especially seeing family members being blessed with children,” Toni says. “We both had to take a step back and live our lives. We were content with what we thought God had for us.

“During that next year, God laid on both our hearts, separately, the call to foster adopt. God was softening our hearts and preparing us for the new challenges up ahead. We chose to be obedient to that call.”

Before long, Toni and Phil received a literal call … about a six-day-old baby girl named Cheyenne. They welcomed this sweet little bundle into their home and, three months later, they got another call—Cheyenne’s older brother, Zion, needed a home, too. 

The Rowleys went from zero to two-under-3 over the course of just a few short months. “Parenting is a lot different than teaching,” laughs Toni, reflecting on their jumping-into-the-deep-end launch into parenthood. But, despite the uncertainty that foster adoption brings, Cheyenne and Zion stayed and they’ve been a family of four ever since. “They were ours from the very beginning,” Toni says. 

Through foster adoption, the Rowleys have learned the importance of forgiveness. 

“Without Christ’s forgiveness it is impossible for us to do this on our own,” Toni says. “Phil and I, through Christ, must forgive birth parents for the trauma created in our children’s lives. When we choose to forgive others the way that Christ has forgiven us, our Lord and Savior begins to soften our hearts and fills us with compassion and love rather than anger and bitterness.”

Compassion for kids

Going on this journey of learning forgiveness alongside her children is part of what Toni loves about working in First Free’s Kids Ministry. 

“It’s all about having a relationship with the Lord and teaching the kids about that and being an example to them,” she says. “What a wonderful job to be able to come alongside kids, be able to see them grow and pray for them.

“We had a young girl come into our office the other day and I was able to say, ‘Honey, can I pray for you? Is everything OK?’ Being able to just sit there, encourage her and pray for her—and you could see, right away, the countenance on her face change. She mattered, in that moment, and she knew that. She matters to the Lord and she matters to us.” 

Road Trips with the Rowleys

Toni and Philip have enjoyed making memories with their young family and bringing them along on new chapters of their favorite adventures—like roadtripping. 

“We love taking road trips,” she says. “My husband and I traveled quite a bit before we had kids. We’ve traveled a lot in the West—we have family all over, and so we like to go see them, but we get to see all the different parts of the United States as well.”

When Cheyenne was 3, the Rowleys took their first “short” trip—an 11-hour drive from Rockford to Nebraska for Philip’s brother’s wedding. They drove it in a straight shot. “The kids did a fantastic job,” says Toni, “so we started planning another short trip for the following summer out to Mount Rushmore—or Mount Mushmore as Cheyenne calls it.

“My husband and I love history, so we love doing historical stuff,” Toni says. “The year after that we took a big ol’ long trip—three weeks—out to California. This past year, we went out to see Philip’s brother who moved to North Carolina, and we did Philadelphia and D.C. along the way.” A highlight of the trip? Running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps like Rocky. “I’ve always wanted to do that—I’m sorry,” she laughs.

In the coming years, Toni hopes to recreate one of her favorite childhood memories with her family—camping and biking along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin. “My favorite memory of that trip is when you go over this little hill—because the campground is in this huge valley—and I just remember sitting on the hill at night, looking out and there were lightning bugs everywhere. It was so cool. We would love to do that for our kids and give them those fun memories.”

Sophia Vale
Sophia Vale is a wife, mother and the communications director at First Free Rockford. She loves cooking, being active and spending time with her friends and family. She lives in Rockford with her husband and daughter.


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