A Story That Starts With No Friends

Column: Finding The Good
by Caitlin Ludwig

A long time ago, in a fair away land… Okay scratch that.

Three years ago, I moved to Rockford.  Originally, I’m from Byron – a small town about 20 minutes from Rockford with three stop lights (they added one since my childhood days – we used to only have 2!), a nuclear power plant and a lot of heart.  I had recently taken a job as an Internet Sales Coordinator at a car dealership in town.  Basically, it was the furthest thing from my “field” and I pretty much hated the job but I had watched “Pretty Woman” every day for the last 3 months since college graduation and I desperately needed a job if for no other reason than to get out of the house.

I moved into a small, but cozy, one bedroom apartment on Sage Drive on the North side of Rockford.  I bought a living room set and a cute kitchen table, painted a wall in my kitchen red and decorated my apartment with pictures of family and friends.  As I sat on my couch to admire my work, I realized something… all my friends in the frames staring back at me were at least 2 hours away.  If I wanted to catch a movie or hit the mall, I had no girlfriend to call.  Though I was only 20 minutes from home, I had moved to a brand new city with not a friend to my name.  I think it was at that moment that I sat on my couch and cried… for the first time of quite a few lonely Rockford nights.

One day, during some down time at my job at the car dealership, I happened upon the Rockford Chamber of Commerce’s website and found that a young professional group was in the beginning stages of being formed.  Honestly, I had no idea what a young professional group really did but I had a feeling there would have to be a few potential friends in the group.  With a glimmer of hope in my heart, I emailed the contact person and waited by my inbox for more information.

A few weeks later, a group was meeting to discuss the possibility of a new young professional group in town and I was invited to join and give my input.  Because I was working at a company that had a strict hour lunch break rule and the meeting was at three, I pushed off lunch and took off at 2:50 to find the meeting at the YWCA.  45 minutes later, I was still in my car… I was lost.  I was told the YWCA was on State Street but after 45 minutes of driving up and down the street, I finally gave up and headed back to work… still friendless. (By the way – for those who don’t know – the YWCA has a State Street address but really isn’t on State Street.  You have to turn down the road that leads you to Rockford College to find the building.  Just a FYI so you don’t get as lost as I did…)

I wrote the contact person and apologized for missing the meeting and said that although I appreciated the offer, I didn’t think I would have time for the group because of my working conditions.  Thank goodness I received an email back encouraging me to participate when I could and in whatever way I could.  A few weeks later, there was another meeting that I was able to attend and decided to give it one more chance.

I walked into the meeting and much to my delight there were plenty of other young professionals in the room!  Finally – a chance to make friends!  This was the first time I saw people in Rockford that were my own age.  I wasn’t interested in the bar scene (plus, as a single girl – is that really all that safe??  Bar hopping alone??  I think not.) and I hadn’t met anyone through my church or gym.  I immediately decided that this was a group I was going to be a part of and this was a group that I was going to dedicate my time and energy to.  This was my lifeboat – my chance for friends and a place in Rockford to belong.

Fast forward a few months.  The group had settled on the name IGNITE and had created a mission statement and organized its first event at Granite City.  The night of the event, it was raining horribly, I got off work late and was in no mood to drive across town.  I decided that none of those were good enough reasons to skip the event so I made myself go.  Once I got to the event, I knew no one there and actually stood in the corner for probably 15 minutes.  Just as I was ready to give up yet again, Sarah Petrovich walked up to me and said “Hi!  I’m Sarah.  Have you met…?” and she introduced me to about 10 other people.  All I can say is THANK YOU SARAH!  With that one simple introduction, I met people I am still friends with today.  We spent the next two hours chatting, laughing and getting to know one another.

That, my friends, was my entry to IGNITE.  So often when I look back, I think there are so many times I could have called it quits.  I generally think of myself as a very outgoing person but I was having a very hard time meeting people in my age group.  From there, I joined the Launch Team and helped to get the group off the ground.  I transitioned to the Leadership Team where I laid the groundwork for the GIVE Team as their chair.  In 2010, I became the Director of IGNITE and began working for the organization full-time.

So what’s my point?  Well, I have a few.  As we celebrate the second anniversary of IGNITE this week, I can’t help but think “what if?”  What if I hadn’t sent the email to the contact person for the group?  What if I hadn’t gone back to another meeting after I couldn’t find the YWCA?  What if I had left Granite City before Sarah found me?  I think my future would be drastically different today.

We’ve made a lot of changes in our past two years.  First, no one will ever go through what I went through at an After 5.  No one will stand in a corner unable to break in.  That’s my personal promise.  And if that does happen to you for some reason (which it most definitely should not) you and I will go grab coffee and talk about how we can improve the event and what connections I can help you make.

Second, we’ve beefed up our communications and our programming scheduled.  With the help of the Leadership Team we have tried to identify programming that fits the needs of young professionals.  We recognize some people come to the group for new friends but other join for professional development.  Some come to volunteer others come to find a new job.  No matter your reason, we have something in place for you.  And if you can think of something we haven’t?  By all means, let us know!  We want to make sure we’re meeting your needs.

Third, we want to make sure the IGNITE members know our community and that our community knows us.  Young professionals play an important role in Rockford.  We need to stand up and make sure our voice is heard.  We need to productively add to the conversation.  IGNITE helps its members do this.

For me, IGNITE has been a life changing organization.  From helping me finally feel at home in Rockford and introducing me to people who quickly became life-long friends to allowing me to work in my dream job and make connections more valuable that I can even say, IGNITE has provided me countless memories and great experiences.  I can’t say thank you enough to the people who have helped shape this organization along the way.

So, that’s my IGNITE story.  Now, it’s my job to attract and retain young professionals to the Rockford region that mission goes much deeper than a paycheck.  It’s become a personal mission – my mission to make change in my community.

I hope IGNITE has left some sort of hand print on your life.  From an interesting blog post to a speaker who opened a door; to new friends or new opportunities, I hope your membership has given you something back.  If it hasn’t, we need to talk.  And if it has, we also need to talk – your story can help other people to understand why IGNITE is so important to our community.

So, here’s to two years!!  Let’s spend this week celebrating!!  In a few hours, I’m off to play trivia at Hope & Anchor in Loves Park.  If you’re free tonight, join us!  Tomorrow we will be lunching with Ron Clewer from Rockford Housing Authority and spending the evening playing kickball and face painting with our families.  Thursday, we will enjoy lunch by the Rockford River and Friday we’ll leave the stress of work behind as we laugh the night away at the Anniversary Bash Dinner & Comedy Show at the Radisson.

That’s my IGNITE story… I’m anxious to hear… What’s yours??

-Caitlin

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~ by igniterockford on May 17, 2011.

3 Responses to “A Story That Starts With No Friends”

  1. I really enjoyed this post because I can really relate to it. I also had moved to the Rockford region (closer to Byron) 3 years ago before moving back to Chicago this past year. Most of my friends were in Chicago, I knew no one, and had decided to finish off my college education at Rockford College.

    The first year and a half were spent working as an aircraft detailer at the airport, not happy, not coming out of my shell to mingle, and only hearing the bad about Rockford from nearly everyone I came across during that time. It wasn’t till I was laid off from my job at the airport that I finally took a chance with 2 internships (one unpaid) while attending college full-time, which was an idea I wished to pursue for quite some time. From there, Sarah Petrovich (!) introduced me to Ignite. Then, I had taken on another internship at the United Way later that Fall. That time period was perhaps one of the best experiences I had simply because I had the opportunity to meet with positive and motivated people who saw potential in Rockford.

    I guess the moral of both stories is that when in a rut, take a chance. Do not assume what you are told, and always believe that your best days are still ahead of you.

  2. Great post! The Granite City event was one of my first events as well – and Sarah was my lifeline too! If it weren’t for Sarah I would never have found a job in Rockford.

    I had been looking for months for a job in my field in the area. Sarah worked for RACC at the time and was able to get me an interview at KMK Media Group, one of IGNITE’s founding partners. I got the job and was encouraged by the wonderful owners of KMK Media to get involved in IGNITE as it got off the ground.

    I joined the launch team and later the leadership team as the LEAD chair. I have met so many wonderful people and developed an amazing group of lifelong friends.

    Having lived in or near Rockford for my entire life, IGNITE has helped me find more pride and joy in my community. I used to think there’s nothing to do in Rockford – SO WRONG! There’s TONS to do in Rockford if you just tap-in and open your eyes. IGNITE has been a great way to get involved, whether it be social, work-related networking or volunteering in the community.

    Through the GIVE committee I can join other YPs and friends for a day of volunteering. At an After 5 I can visit with friends and network with new faces. With the LEAD committee I am able to meet area business leaders, while Energizing small businesses. A LOTB offers information on topics I’ve always wondered about and helps me be a better, more well-informed citizen. IGNITE has so much to offer that I didn’t cover, but through my experience with IGNITE I have made some of the best “moves” in my career and my life in general.

    Last August, a connection that I had made through IGNITE offered me the opportunity to interview for a position at yet another wonderful company, Ipsen. If it weren’t for that connection, and of course all of the amazing things I had to put on my resume because of my experiences with IGNITE, I may not be sitting here, in my office, grateful every day for finding my dream job!

    Happy Anniversary, IGNITE! And thank you to all of our founding partners, sponsors, members, leadership team members and of course Caitlin Ludwig. Without Caitlin IGNITE would not be the awesome organization it is today. Thank you for your commitment to our mission, to our members and to our community. The countless hours that you put into IGNITE have not gone unnoticed. With you as our leader, I know that IGNITE has a future and that our efforts to attract and retain talent will make a difference for the future of this region.

  3. Rick – Great story and great lessons!!

    Mary – You pretty much made me cry. Thank you so much for your kind words and I’m so glad IGNITE has helped in your path of awesomeness. Can’t say thank you enough. 🙂

    -Caitlin

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