Donor Profile: Promise growth is ‘remarkable’ to former educator

Former Rockford Lutheran teacher Jane Austin already knew about Rockford Promise when Elaine Breck, the organization’s first executive director, approached her about supporting Rockford Promise in some way.

“I used to live in Kalamazoo (Michigan), which is where the first Promise program started,” Austin said.

Breck was hoping that Austin and the group she focused her energy on after retiring, the Kiwanis Club of Rockford, would contribute money towards a Rockford Promise Scholarship.

“We have our own scholarship program so we’d be stepping on our own toes,” Austin said. The two kept talking and Breck asked if the Rockford Kiwanis would be willing to give money for Rockford Promise to hire a grant writer.

It’s an example of how even the smallest help can lead to big results. The Rockford Kiwanis did fund the grant writer position, which Rockford Promise used to hire Kaylene Groh. Kaylene has been with the organization ever since and now is the executive director.

Austin and the Kiwanis have watched as the number of Rockford Scholars has grown from a handful to now nearly 300 students attending Rock Valley College, Rockford University and Northern Illinois University.

“(The growth of the program) is remarkable to me,” Austin said. “It’s going to be one of the big things that moves our city forward. But it’s going to need more support – personal and financial.”

Austin and the Kiwanis helped with the early financial support. Austin still helps with the personal support. She’s a mentor to two students.

“I’m in my late 80s, I wasn’t sure (mentoring) would work,” Austin said. “Both of my mentees are at Rockford University and we are still in touch. We go out to lunch every week. I’ve spent a lot of time helping one of them get settled in this semester at Rockford University.”

“Without Rockford Promise, they might have gone to (a community college), but it wouldn’t have been possible to go to a university,” Austin added. “One of my mentees was going to end her education after RVC because nothing appealed to her. I asked her what she would do if she could do anything she wanted and, without taking a breath, she said ‘I’d be a school counselor.’”

Austin challenged her to research what it takes to be a counselor and she found out that she could become one through Rockford University.

“It just took someone saying the right thing at the right time,” Austin said. “She’s going to graduate in a field she never thought was possible for her. The other one is studying early education.”