In a neighborhood where need is always visible and hope isn’t, a former factory contains a thriving ministry for at-risk kids.
Located at the corner of Seventh Street and 13th Avenue, Rock House Kids is a Bible-based program for children and teens. It runs four evenings a week, from 5 to 8 p.m. Because of a shortage of volunteers and space, grades 1 through 6 currently meet Mondays and Wednesdays, while junior-high and high-school kids meet Tuesdays and Thursdays.
We spoke with Melissa Campbell, finance coordinator for Rock House Kids.
Are the kids who attend Rock House generally from this neighborhood, or how wide of a circle do you have?
Any child can attend. But the bulk of them are from the immediate area, and we do have 15-passenger vans that we take to Concord Commons (apartment complex). So we’ll pick up kids there. They have to call and be put on the list.
Lots of different family situations?
Absolutely. Some of the kids are from the stereotypical, poverty-stricken family. They might live with Granny or Auntie. Some do live with their moms. They may or may not have a male figure in the home. And then we do have some families where they have both parents and both parents are employed, they have their own vehicle and they can get their kids back and forth to Rock House. For those kids, it’s more for the Bible enrichment throughout the week. My daughter used to come here before COVID, and for her it was that Bible reinforcement and also just meeting a whole new set of friends. So there is that social aspect.
What kinds of influences are you trying to counteract in kids’ lives?
Well, what is this area of town known for? Drugs, gangs, prostitution, human trafficking. Gang influence is becoming more apparent younger and younger.
In what ways?
We’ve got older siblings who are gang affiliates and they are recruiting their younger siblings. So we have fifth and sixth graders that are now exhibiting gang symptoms. They can’t be friends with this person because this person is affiliated with this person and this person is in this gang. And their family is tied to this gang. So there is some outside drama. It is more prevalent with our teens, but it is starting to show up more in our little kids.
So this is a kind of a battleground for you guys.
It is. It’s one of those things where if the child or teen is with us both nights, that’s basically six hours a week that we are trying to combat their normal. So it’s really important that we find the right volunteers, because our kids are a set of challenging kids. Not all of them, but many are angry.
How do you see the anger playing out in kids?
It’s the outbursts in class. They don’t want to be here or they don’t want to participate. Or they fight with each other. Physical fights. It’s the whole gamut.
Our kids—they’re good kids. They’ve been dealt a bad hand. And many of them are generations deep within the cycle. But there are some where you can see that light go on. They don’t want that for their lives. Those are the little moments when we do catch a glimpse. You don’t know the impact you’re making on them, and you may not see the fruit of that seed for many, many, many years in some cases. There are days that’s all we can hold onto.
How long has Rock House existed?
Since 1999. We started out very, very small, with one little boy named Carl. He was just hungry. Dola Gregory, our founder, started with Carl and word of mouth. And that’s how we grown. It’s all been word of mouth.
What did this building used to be?
Manufacturing. Midwest Scale was here. When Dola first started, it was just a very small space. And then she was able to take out a mortgage and get the second part of the building. And then Midwest Scale was downscaling, so we got this middle part gifted. Then they moved out in 2019, and now we own and occupy the whole building now.
We’re about 9,800 square feet. People on a tour are amazed at the space, and we are like, “We know. We couldn’t buy a building with this much square footage elsewhere.” But the building has some big needs. We are working on it (with plans to expand within the building). We know God’s got us.
You provide a hot meal to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have one every day. How does that work?
We are a warming kitchen, not a cooking kitchen, so we do have a lot of outside partnerships. There are churches that will provide a meal, local Kiwanis groups provide meals, we partner with Beef-a-Roo. Even Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Subway have partnered with us. So we are able to provide different options.
How many kids do you normally feed?
We are averaging about 250 a week. It fluctuates. But we are back to pre-COVID levels.
What happens after the meal?
We do a light lesson in Chapel, and then after that the tires really hit the road. The kids break up into their grade classrooms with their mentors. We’ll try to expand on that lesson from Chapel. And then, time permitting, they get to go out to our playground if the weather is nice. We have a half-court basketball court in the back. And then 8 o’clock rolls around and everyone gets their take-home food bag and they go home.
Did you meet through the pandemic?
We had to close for about six or eight weeks. We were deemed “necessary,” so our office stayed open. We set up meeting sites so we could still get kids their meal bags. … Many of the kids have food insecurity.
And then a grant came through at about that time, and we were able to redo our kitchen, which the health department had wanted. We would not have been able to redo our kitchen if we were open for program every night. When things align so magnificently, it’s a “God wink.” I don’t know how else to say it.
What are your needs here that First Free should be aware of?
Volunteers are always going to be key, especially once we get our expansion done. Because the goal after expansion is complete is having all age groups here all four nights. Every child that’s enrolled, if they want to be here the four nights, they’re going to get four nights of meals, four nights of love and safety and heat or cooling, and learning about God. So we’re going to have to basically double our volunteer base.
How many volunteers do you need on a typical night?
The goal is to have two adults in every classroom. Right now, Mondays and Wednesdays are our big nights, and we have 11 or 12 classrooms.
What kind of a commitment would a volunteer need to make?
We have a position for any amount of time someone wants to give. The biggest thing is that if you are working hand-in-hand with our kids, that you are able to commit. Maybe it’s one night a week. They will not open up to you, they will not trust you until you have put in time. It’s a big frustration with some of our newer volunteers, because the kids do not trust them yet—because they have had so many people leave them. So it’s being able to invest the time.
We have a need for van drivers. We own three vans. Tonight we are only able to take out one because we don’t have anyone else who’s able to fill in. We actually have money to be able to purchase a fourth van, but we’re not going to buy it yet because we don’t have anybody to drive it. We are in the process of having security cameras being installed on all the vans—we have a grant. We want to be able to pick up as many kids who want to come.
Is there a skill set that you are looking for with volunteers?
Love God, love kids. That’s basically it. Anything else can be taught. We provide all the curriculum. We even do CPI (crisis prevention intervention) training the volunteers can sign up for. It’s basically learning when a child is having a moment how to properly hold or restrain without inflicting harm.
And if leading or mentoring a class isn’t for them, we are always looking for people to help serve meals. And sometimes during the day there is even office help that we need. So if there is someone who doesn’t like to drive at night…
What would you say to people who don’t want to come to this neighborhood at night?
It’s not that scary. We know what to watch for. I have faith, I guess, that God is protecting our building. We’ve gotten tagged by a gang spray painting in the back. That’s really the only issue we’ve had. The doors are locked so nobody outside who shouldn’t be in can come in. It’s for us and for the kids. We really want the kids to feel safe when they’re here. We keep our guard up all the time.
At night, our parking lot is fully illuminated and we have cameras. District 2 police station is just a few blocks away. We do suggest leaving in pairs or small groups, but we have our crossing people out front at the beginning and end of the night to make sure the kids get across the street OK.
What do you find yourself praying about for this place?
There’s a lot. We have staff prayer, everyone together communally, every week. For the safety of our kids. For our volunteers and our staff, that they don’t burn themselves out. Donations and stuff, I pray a “thank you” for those. That’s a God thing. Everything that comes through the front door, whether it’s monetary or the stuff that we need, God has put that on someone’s hearts to send.
I’m starting to pray for the expansion. We’re kind of in a holding pattern, waiting on some drawings to get done and money to come in. Everything is based on pre-COVID (prices), so we are waiting for the sticker shock to happen again.
But really, just health and strength and peace and grace.
What else would you like for people to know about Rock House Kids?
Success looks different here. Success to some is grade-related or status-related. Here, it’s keeping our kids alive. Followed by keeping them warm. Keeping them fed. Keeping them safe.
A story I will never forget is of one of our former teen boys. He turned 18 and was getting ready to graduate high school here in Rockford. One of his last assignments was to talk about his greatest accomplishments. This kid was a track star at his school. His greatest accomplishment? Making it to 18 years old. His cousin, whom he had been close with growing up, did not. Violence in the streets took his cousin.
Sunday, Oct. 30, is the final day of First Free’s donation drive for Rock House Kids.
To learn more about Rock House Kids, or to volunteer, visit their website.