All posts in “staff”

Hate finds a dead end

by Jim Killam | 5-minute read


Shane Heckler had a hard day Tuesday.

At his job at an East State Street grocery store, he was collecting carts from the parking lot when a man pulled up in his car, rolled down the window and unleashed a stream of obscenities.

“Are you one of those f***ing n*****s who are looting?”

Before Shane could say anything, the man drove away. Read More

Meet Lara Griffin

Lara Griffin began working on First Free’s Communications team this past December. She runs our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and she’ll also soon be handling the weekly email newsletters. Lara and her husband, Jonathan, met in 2005 when they both lived in New York City. They’ve lived in Rockford, Jonathan’s hometown, since 2015. They have three kids: Allegra, 9; Salome, 7; and Olivia, 5. What follows is from an interview Jan. 15.


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lara Griffin walked to class from her dorm room in Manhattan’s garment district.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was only several weeks into her term at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The teacher arrived at the 9 a.m. class with unusual news.

“There’s some weird stuff on the radio. Something about a plane crashing into a building.”

Lara assumed it was a small plane somewhere. Then a student came in.

“Everybody needs to go to the auditorium.”

There, live news coverage was being projected onto big screens. Within minutes, the students watched the World Trade Center’s South Tower collapse. Thousands of people were dying — three miles from where they stood.

School officials brought out a bank of landline telephones for students to call home. Most people did have cellphones by then, but the networks were overwhelmed. Lara went to her dorm room and sent a quick email home.

“I’m OK.”

Read More

Meet Clayton Ganziano

Clayton Ganziano has served First Free Rockford for two years as middle school coordinator. Now he’s also coordinating Rooted, our young-adults ministry. Clayton and Hannah just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

We talked with Clayton about church youth groups, what kids are looking for … and how middle school and young adult ministries actually have a lot to do with one another.


What did your faith look like, growing up?

I grew up in an EV Free church. My family was very involved there. But once I was in high school, my older brother and I just didn’t connect well in the youth group. So we tried a lot of different churches, places that our friends were going or that we had heard about.

The Chapel, a multi-site church in the Chicago area, had just opened a campus at my high school, McHenry High School. We checked it out as a family and it was a place we were OK with going. My mom wanted us to get plugged into the youth group, but I didn’t want to go. That was a whole lot of new people. It was a bigger church and that youth group was going to be big and overwhelming.

The group met in Grayslake, so for the McHenry campus, the students would gather at a Burger King. Then a church bus would pick everyone up and drive them to youth group. So at my mom’s insistence, I tried it one night. As I’m sitting in Burger King, this lady walks in. And she’s like, “Hey, are you getting on the bus?” And I’m like, “Yeah … who are you?”

Read More

Meet Kari Heckler


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.”

Read More

Meet Meredith Domanico

New faces at First Free: Meredith Domanico

First Free Rockford is pleased to welcome Meredith Domanico as its new Director of Student Ministries.

Meredith has worked in student ministries for nearly 13 years. She grew up in Libertyville and is looking to relocate to the Rock River Valley as she settles in at First Free. Meredith is married to her husband, Matt, and they have a 13-year-old son, Antonio.

She earned her marketing degree at DePaul University and worked in radio for several years. Additionally, she helped manage a hair salon owned by her sister.

In transitioning to church work, Meredith said, “The Lord just opened a door to ministry.” She started volunteering with students in junior high and high school through her former home church, The Chapel campus in McHenry. That work led to her becoming the student ministries pastor, and her love of working with church members in that younger age range has continued to develop.

“What I love about student ministries is it’s such a real environment. There’s such a desire to be known and in the community together, and to be vulnerable and authentic with each other,” she said. “They ask the hard questions. Once they’re comfortable, they take risks, worship without abandon and invite their friends. I love how we have the opportunity to be the place that looks different than the hallways at school.”

Her involvement with church intensified after college. She recalled attending a Saturday night service many years ago and hearing the voice of God say, “You’ve been coming (to church) – now it’s time to give.”

She was attracted to First Free through interactions with senior leadership, and she was looking for a new challenge.

“I was comfortable where I was at. But God doesn’t call us to be comfortable,” she said. “I met with the senior leadership team here, and we clicked really well. I’ve been letting God really direct me, and things kept getting more and more clear.”

She looks forward to helping build and create new directions for the youth program. “I love to mentor and disciple people, just do life together.”

In addition to regular Sunday and Wednesday student programming, you can find Meredith during her Around Town Tuesdays sessions at local coffee shops and restaurants. She’s doing them twice a month, and they’re a time for students to gather, do homework, and talk about life, school, Jesus – the format is wide open.