Executive director update: Get to know Kaylene Groh
In April, Kaylene Groh was promoted from director of scholar support to interim executive director. Kaylene assumed the role from Dr. Tasha Davis, and is excited to continue the organization’s positive momentum deepening major partnerships with the City of Rockford, Community Foundation of Northern Illinois and Northern Illinois University. She’s committed to extending continued support to growing cohorts of scholars, and scaling the organization’s reach and capabilities to fulfill the mission.
Originally from Kansas, Kaylene received a scholarship to attend John Brown University in Arkansas. After graduating, she moved to DeKalb where she met her future husband, John. She relocated to Rockford 17 years ago, and, along with her husband, has been raising three sons and contributing meaningfully to the community ever since.
Kaylene has been central to the organization’s growth, fueling many of the programs and initiatives that have become the hallmark of Rockford Promise. Learn a little more about one of Rockford Promise’s powerhouses helping realize the full Promise potential.
How did you get involved with Rockford Promise?
“I’d heard of Rockford Promise generally in the community and had attended Raise the Roof, Rockford Promise’s annual fundraiser. I started first as a grant writer working with (former executive director) Elaine Breck. Rockford Promise had received a grant from the Rockford Kiwanis Club for grant writing services and Elaine and Lori Berkes Nelson, who was on the board at the time, recruited me to fill that role.”
What is it about the mission that appealed to you?
“At first, I worked behind the scenes and saw the genius of what Rockford Promise could do on a conceptual level to propel our city forward. Working towards increased college degree attainment was something tangible that could change the trajectory for kids and families, neighborhoods, and local businesses. I could see how all the benefits would multiply on a local level.
Then, I eventually got to meet the kids and hear their stories directly. That’s when the mission caught fire for me. And that right there is what I return to over and over. That is the “why” behind what we do – these kids, our kids, Rockford’s kids. Opening a path for their future. I might be having a tough day, but meeting with one of our students or interacting with them, it completely re-focuses me. They are the heart of the mission. They are phenomenal and inspiring.”
The number of Scholars in the system has grown tremendously the past couple of years because of the City of Rockford – Northern Illinois University partnership. How daunting is it to step into this role in such a time of growth?
“Rockford Promise, from its inception, has always been a scrappy group of local residents who were passionate about the mission and about our city, and ready to face the odds. I’m thrilled in my small way to continue to carry this forward. It’s not an easy mountain to climb. For me, it goes back to these kids. We can’t fail these kids. We can’t fail our city. For sure, there’s much work to be done, but we have to keep moving it forward. It’s as basic as that.”
Do you have one-, three-, five-year goals?
“Our goal from day one has been a fully-funded promise program. We want to get to a point where we can give every child who applies and qualifies and wants to go to college that option and that choice. NIU is now fully funded, thanks to the City of Rockford, but more work remains with RU and RVC. This year, for example, we had 43 percent more applications to RVC than the previous year, and we had to turn so many kids away (due to lack of funding). We don’t want that to continue to happen. We need to increase the fundraising for scholarships to RU and RVC, because both of those scholarship opportunities are funded entirely through local donations.
Secondly, we need to expand our staff. We’re in a period of huge growth. A Promise program of our size should have five to seven staff members minimum. We’re currently working with 1.5. That said, we have some bright prospects on the horizon and will be hiring additional staff this summer.
Finally, we need to scale and expand our programs to ensure these kids not only start college, but also finish college. For sure, they have to put the work in. We can’t do that for them. They have to be passionate and push and work hard, but when and where we can stand beside and help them navigate the college process, we want to do that. We’ve had great success in the past, and we need to continue to build upon and expand that success.”