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"What would you do if you had a million dollars?" -- Isaac Guerrero

     When Rockford Register Star reporter Isaac Guerrero asked readers what we would do if we had a million dollars, I immediately thought of a vision I first outlined in a presentation to Rockford's City Council in 2007 and have continued pursuing ever since. If I had a million dollars, I would make that vision a reality because:

It addresses urgent and critical needs manifest in crime rates, illiteracy, and failing schools.
It creates jobs and sustainable economic development.
It cannot be outsourced.
It enhances property values.
It serves a growing market.
No public funds are involved.  Instead, the project will generate sales tax revenue for the region and the property will remain on the tax rolls.

     The idea first occurred to me several years ago when I was visiting Rockford's renowned Discovery Center with grandchildren.  The Center was crowded, and I noticed that many children were being rude to each other at the exhibits, pushing others away to access the hands-on activities themselves.  I began thinking about ways we could teach respect for others and foster literacy skills as effectively and in the same manner as the hands-on exhibits teach science principles.  When I looked across the parking lot and saw the abandoned Armory, an idea occurred to me for another type of discovery center, a place where children could be inspired and motivated, be aided in vital reading and writing skill development, be encouraged to see their own potential, and be imbued with a spirit of respect for and service to others.

     I formulated a rough outline of the proposed center and presented it to community leaders, to no avail heretofore.  I have since abandoned the idea of using the Armory because of political factors, but a location I now have in mind may work much better anyway.  Here is an excerpt from the original proposal which I presented to the Rockford City Council and to other community leaders in 2007:

     For 19 years I have been on a global odyssey focused on helping children and adults develop communication skills essential for realizing their full potential. In my work with more than half-a-million teachers, parents, and children, I have encountered countless dedicated but frustrated teachers and supportive but anxious parents striving to overcome negative cultural influences our children are exposed to virtually every day: violence in entertainment media; celebrity hedonism; unsportsmanlike athletes; obscene advertising; ubiquitous rudeness — all contributing to education failures and alarming crime rates.

     My Human Development Proposal is for a homegrown enterprise that will help teachers and parents overcome those negative influences and will help children realize their full potential.

     Just south of our publishing office on North Main Street is Rockford’s world-class Discovery Center and the vacant Armory building next door. For years I have wanted to lease or buy the Armory and establish there what could be called the Self-Discovery Center™ or Human Development Discovery Center™, a hands-on learning center that provides teacher and student enrichment in reading and writing and thinking skills while  teaching civility, cooperation, and respect for self and others in the same way the Discovery Center teaches science.

     I envision staffing the Center with retired local teachers whose love for children and teaching empowers them to bring out the best in themselves and others. Walls and room dividers are decorated by local artists with murals and electronically displayed visual images depicting inspirational men, women, and children from history — George Washington Carver, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller, Anne Frank, Illinois’ own Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandburg, and our own Rockford educated Jane Addams, among many others — with quotes from their writings and speeches exhorting each visitor to discover and develop his or her own genius.

     Hands-on activities at the Center help children experience the joy and see the wisdom of cooperating with others; help children recognize and realize their potential for transcending self-imposed limitations; help children take responsibility for their own lives; and help children recognize their power to improve the quality of life in their community.

     Exhibits and activities at the Center help teachers flesh out classroom concepts, accelerate learning with tools and techniques not available to every school, and motivate students to develop reading, writing, listening, thinking, and speaking skills which are so vital for personal growth and for careers in the information age workplace.

     Visitors to the Center have access to interactive video stations where students see instructional and inspirational vignettes; access to dining areas where teachers and aides help children understand the importance of good nutrition and learn table manners, including the rationale for and benefits of exercising common courtesy; access to multimedia classrooms and auditoriums where student programs can take place and where personal and professional development programs and leadership training institutes can be presented for teachers, parents, and the staffs of area businesses and community organizations.

     Perhaps the strongest feature of the Center is that it provides children and adult visitors with a first hand experience and indelible impression of a paradox taught by the lives of so many men and women whose lives have so deeply enriched the lives of their own and subsequent generations: the greatest joys and most enduring successes are found not in focusing on self and asking, “What can I get?” but in focusing on others and asking, “What can I give?” and “How can I help?”

     Because the Center taps into an area of vital interest for parents and teachers, because it is accessible in a drive of two hours or less for a population base of more than 13 million, because it addresses a significant curriculum enrichment need of schools throughout that region and beyond, because it is on the same Riverfront Museum Park campus as the renowned Discovery Center and Burpee Museum, and because it is conducive to constantly updated activities and exhibits, I believe the Center has the potential to attract several thousand visitors per week, including busloads of children from schools in northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa, and western Indiana on weekdays and families from those areas and beyond on holidays and weekends.

     For all those reasons, I believe the Self-Discovery Center™ or Human Development Discovery Center™ is an investment in human development that will pay economic and social dividends today and for generations to come. When we make life better for children, we make life better for everyone. When we make the future brighter for children, we make the future brighter for everyone.

     That was the original concept.  In the intervening years, the idea blended into concern for the  Rockford’s meteoric rise in unemployment and precipitous decline in education. I decided a better name for the concept would be the Human Excellence Center™ and now, perhaps, Rockford Epcot Center™. Political haggling over the old Armory building ruled out that central city site, so  I began thinking about possibilities for the empty Jerome’s and Nihan’s buildings in the 1300 block of North Main Street.  They are located along the cultural corridor, have plenty of interior space for exhibits, and have ample space for auto and school bus parking.  At the same time, work on the book Warriors Forever  the story of the 1955-56 West High basketball championships based on interviews with the players and others involved renewed my awareness of Rockford’s proud past and of the challenges various socio-ethnic groups have had to overcome.  That suggested a new twist for the Center, naming it after a family or families that would help make the center a reality or just naming it the “Greater North End Cultural Center: A Place to Learn and Grow.”  It would include, for the edification, instruction, and inspiration of today’s youth and their parents who may be unfamiliar with our past, stories of family immigration, business start-ups, etc., told in photos, words, and at interactive video stations which would be part of the Center, teaching visitors history and conveying concepts of endurance and enterprise for children.  It would be a permanent, living tribute to the families that contributed to Rockford’s past growth and development and a remedy for many of the ills our community faces today. Beyond that, the concept also could be franchised to other cities. An important plus for the Center from the economic perspective is that, despite hard times, parents are always disposed to spend money on strengthening their children's prospects for success, as Rockford's tourism bureau statistics on visits to Rockford each year for child-centered activities. Its success would spawn development of businesses in the surrounding area, including restaurants, boutiques, and other shops catering to families.

     Following are a few additional thoughts on the Center.

     First, the Center is designed to help all children within the four-state area accessible to Rockford in about a two hour drive, not just the children who reside here.  Children in the greater Rockford area would be major beneficiaries, of course, but certainly not sole beneficiaries.  Also, the central concept can be franchised to other cities once it's established.

     Second, a teacher’s observation "the most discouraging thing I see from the children I work with has absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement or their level of functioning.  It's the complete and total lack of respect so many of these children show towards all people.  Not just teachers, and not just other students, but all people." confirms the universal nature of the needs the Center addresses.  Our problems are universal, which is why the Center has potential for being franchised to other locations.

     Third, there are plenty of inspirational success stories of people of all nationalities and races who settled in Rockford.  I like the idea of having their names on the Center because they personify what we are trying to inculcate in the children and adults who visit the Center.  In fact, we could and should include stories of people of all nationalities because it's important to be inclusive and to welcome families who would want to sponsor exhibits in the Center.  I use the Discovery Center term "exhibits" for what I prefer to call "work stations," the hands-on activities at each station in the Center.  "Exhibits" sounds passive to me, something we want to avoid.

     Fourth, there is no problem finding what a teacher referred to as "programming and materials that invest and truly capture the attention of urban students in the 21st century."  It is being done effectively at certain schools I visit in other areas.  Also, there's a whole industry devoted to creating the same kinds of values-oriented work stations as are used by the Discovery Center in teaching science principles, but many school districts and private schools cannot afford them.  My vision for the center is hands-on, interactive, digitally-enhanced, with "living history" characters circulating -- all designed to address that very concern.  The design includes adding new work stations and rotating existing ones periodically to encourages return visits to the Center.  The same is true of speakers and programs and in-residence specialists.

     Fifth, with respect to a teacher’s question about "how we can reinforce our message to students after they leave a center like this and return to the world that has neglected to teach them about civility and kindness and compassion," there are several considerations.  For school field-trip visitors, the teachers will receive aids to reinforce and elaborate on what students see and do at the Center.  Beyond that, effective work stations will themselves inculcate the values in a memorable way, in the same manner that effective children's literature creates images that stay with readers through adulthood.  For parents, teaching aids for home use to build on what the children have experienced at the Center are available in the gift shop.  Finally, one of the functions of the Center and its work stations is to imbue the students with values so that they, themselves, become culture changers, ultimately reinforcing the message for each other.

     Sixth, with respect to a teacher’s questioning "why someone like you, with a true passion for the community, isn't running a school in Rockford," it would never work.  I'm entirely focused on impact, not on organization and administration.  (See some of the evaluations at www.jgcunited.com/enrichment.html.) A case in point is what happens at schools when a child approaches me with a question between sessions.  I stop and answer, even if I'm due in another classroom.  It prompted a teacher who accompanied me from session to session to exclaim, "You need a manager."  What I call "teachable moments" don't have a timetable, and honoring those teachable moments can have a lifelong impact.  Also, please  consider my 39 years of running a business or, as some would say, having the business run me.  Administration is not my strong suit.  When I am focused on writing a book or preparing for programs, the place could burn down around me and I wouldn't notice.  In one sense, it  has. So it would be a bad fit which also is why I have never conceived of myself as running the Center even if I could underwrite the whole project myself which is a possibility if I can get the help I need to push our products to the next level.

     Seventh, a teacher wondered "why we couldn't take this fundamental idea of respect and the inherent dignity of all people and make it the cornerstone of a charter school in Rockford.”  That could be done, and it is not an either/or proposition.  A school, a laboratory or charter school, could be included on the Center campus eventually.  Limiting ourselves to just a charter school, however, would fall short of a goal I think is important for the Center   having the strongest impact on the greatest number of students and adults in the shortest possible time at the lowest possible cost.  A school restricts the impact to however many students are enrolled.  A Center can have a profound and lifelong impact on several thousand visitors every month, analogous to the indelible impact of visits to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Smithsonian, The Museum of Jewish Heritage/Holocaust Memorial, the Kennedy Space Center, Edison's labs, etc.  places children leave deeply moved, deeply impressed, or saying, "I wanna be . . ."  They then go out and influence the culture in their home communities.

     Eighth, a Center can do things a school can't do because of the creative dynamic and flexibility behind the center providing hands-on access to the latest technology for children who attend schools that may not be able to afford to stay current with the latest innovations; providing different types of work stations that match different students' different learning styles in a way that individual schools may not be able to afford;  using the power of story at interactive work stations with monitors that teach not just knowledge, but wisdom in ways schools may be not able to afford to provide e.g., delivering brief, animated 21-century versions of thought-provoking stories of the Aesop's fables genre with self-testing questions at the end to encourage comprehension of abstract concepts by testing students' understanding of the point of the fable;  providing living history experiences individual schools may not be able to afford by having actors in authentic character and period attire portraying personalities from history and engaging students and adults in activities that communicate fundamental concepts essential for sustaining liberty, free enterprise, and healthy character development.  There's so much more, of course, some of which is suggested in my original proposal which I have been presenting to community leaders here for several years to no avail.

     Ninth, a Center allows us to reach the parents as well as the children, an increasingly important consideration in these times when some parents are lacking in basic parenting skills and in emotional maturity themselves. One of the reasons I write children's books is because I believe we reach the adults when we teach the children.

     That’s the vision. Some people think we're in the book business. Actually, we're in the people-building business. Our books do that; the Center could help us do it even better. That's what I would do, Isaac. Comments are welcome. John Gile

"I never looked at it that way before!"

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