March 17, 2013
Poor Town: For Rockford Couple, Living in District 11 is a Calling
By Brian Leaf, Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — They can afford to move from their house on Mulberry Street, but James and Zandra Devoe are staying put. For them, Rockford’s poorest neighborhood is more than a place to live. It’s a ministry.
“It’s my firm belief that God placed my wife and me in this neighborhood,” said Devoe, 64, who moved to Rockford’s west side 33 years ago.
Devoe is president of West Gateway Coalition, a neighborhood group formed when the Ellis Heights Weed and Seed program ended in 2011. The federally funded anti-crime program aimed to weed out bad people and seed the neighborhood with opportunities.
Devoe retired in 2006 from a job and a commute to Newell Rubbermaid in Freeport. That’s the year he started a community garden at Banner of Truth International, 1401 W. State St. In 2008, the garden became a place for juvenile offenders to do community service, meet mentors and learn how to build garden boxes.
“A lot of them have a lack of knowledge and skills,” he said. “They can’t use simple tools like screwdrivers and tape measures.”
In 2008, Devoe went to work for Anderson-Breacon, formerly Anderson Packaging. When shift work forced him to curtail work with the youth group at Rock Church, 6732 Harrison Avenue, he organized a mission trip for the group. For the past three years, kids from Rock Church have come to the west side to work in the Ellis Heights neighborhood.
While there was never fear about mission work in Guatemala or Honduras, there was initial trepidation among some people about working here.
“There’s just as much violence down there, if not more, than there is in Rockford,” Devoe said.
This June they’ll target Blaisdell Street from Central Avenue to Avon Street, a project known as 10:13. It’s a reference to the verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it. If it is not, let your peace return to you.”
Devoe said they’ll work on curb-appeal projects — painting, porch repairs and other carpentry work — and clean up alleys behind houses where drug dealers and gangs hang out.
He sees such projects as a way to build momentum for change in the neighborhood.
“I think there’s a chance to turn (District 11) around, as long as there is hope,” he said.
“When you lose your hope, you lose your power.”
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