Just west of the Rock River near downtown Rockford, Illinois – at each quadrant of the roundabout where Main and Auburn streets intersect – is a plaque that tells the story of local veterans. Together, these four plaques cover service and sacrifice from the Revolutionary War to the present. Erection of these plaques in 2014 made this historic crossroads Veterans Memorial Circle.

To transform this unusual and easily missed memorial into a fitting tribute to Winnebago County veterans, we (Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle) – an ever-growing group of neighborhood volunteers – adopted the grounds in and around Veterans Memorial Circle in 2019 as a community beautification project.

We understood it was difficult for city crews to keep replacing the perennials lost to road salt, and to plant and maintain annuals.

We rallied.

In May 2019, more than 300 volunteers gathered on one day to plant almost 6,200 annuals and perennials, bringing stunning color to the center of the circle and the surrounding streetscape.

In 2020, during the early phases of pandemic lockdown, we worked in small and distant groups. In six sessions over a month’s time, we planted more than 7,000 flowers.

In 2021, still amid COVID protocols, we again worked in small, socially distant teams. In four sessions over a week’s time, we planted 8,988 flowers. And during the summer-long drought that followed, we kept all those flowers alive and blooming, watering nine hours a day every other day for three months.

In 2022, with 100 volunteers, we planted more than 10,000 flowers in one day, then kept going in smaller groups to plant another 3,000 flowers – and when a devasting weed took over the flag circle weeks later, rallied to plant another 2,000 flowers.

  • This is all the work of volunteers!
  • Our project is 100% privately funded, with no major benefactor – just a lot of people giving what they can.

Beautification of Veterans Memorial Circle is now the biggest volunteer-driven beautification project in Rockford, and the city’s biggest community service project. We learned this when applying for the Spruce Up Day event permit in 2022.

 

Why are we so passionate?

Megan Pease, a Rock Valley College biology professor, weeding the sidewalk flower bed she planted to raise awareness of the new quick-dial number for the suicide and mental health crisis hotline. The flower bed spelling out 988 is on the south side of Auburn Street near the Cumberland Street intersection.

We want veterans passing by this area to know their community cares to step up and salute them.

What prompted our action to reclaim this neglected memorial was awareness of the suicide rate among post-9/11 veterans. For every service member who died in combat in the 20 years post 9/11, more than four times as many active-duty personnel and veterans have died by suicide.

Reading that community indifference can be a factor in veteran suicide was something that did not sit well with us. We had to show our military veterans and their families that Rockford cares.

So, we unite to make Veterans Memorial Circle, and the roads leading to it – more than 6,500 square feet, stretching across nearly 1.7 miles – a place that’s welcoming and respectful.

With a parade of color that lasts from early spring to late fall, we want this spot – the prettiest public space west of the Rock River – to be where veterans see, and feel, gratitude.

We also want to bring them, and their loved ones, hope in the form of resources.

At the check-in table for every planting, we have cards, leaflets, pens and other items from the VA that give information about mental health resources for veterans and their family members.

In the spring of 2022, to raise awareness of the rollout of 988 in mid-July, we asked one of our most active and plant-savvy volunteers to spell out in flowers, at a sidewalk bed nearby, the new way to call/text the suicide and mental health crises hotline: 988.

Many thanks to Megan Pease, a biology professor at Rock Valley College, for taking on this challenge. The 988 flower bed is half a mile east of Veterans Memorial Circle, on the south side of Auburn Street near the Cumberland Street intersection.

Join us in honoring our military veterans and their families

If you want to contribute to this cause, there are so many ways of doing so.

Your financial donations are welcomed – and are tax-deductible. As of early 2022, we no longer are simply a committee of a local neighborhood association leading a public gardening project. Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. We accept donations year-round.

If you can spare some volunteer time, that too is much appreciated.

We have plenty of tasks that need to be done through planning, planting and maintaining this area. Give us a call.

 

To ask a question, email us here.

For a high-level view of our project, thumb through our brochure.

To learn more about what we do day to day, follow us on Facebook or Instagram.

To help us pay for flowers, click here or use the button below.

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A Rockford veteran's perspective