ROCKFORD -- Everywhere you looked at Giovanni's Wednesday night, Rock River Valley residents were decked out in their favorite Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers garb. Unless you were MILL Foundation Chair Tom Rose, who wore a specially made half-Bears, half-Packers T-shirt that his wife created.
"This way I can switch it around as much as I want," Rose joked as Bears and Packers fans packed the east-side banquet hall waiting for special guests former Bears great Gale Sayers and Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr to make their entrance.
Sayers and Starr came to Rockford Wednesday to speak at The MILL's 13th annual Celebrity Celebration fund-raiser, which appeared to be the organization's most successful as attendance topped 600 for the $75-a-ticket event.
The football stars' visit came three days after the Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers 21-10 at Lambeau Field. The odds were against the Bears, having lost 18 of the past 21 games that they've played against their archrivals from the north.
Not so long ago, the odds were against The MILL, too, making Wednesday night?s show of support all the more welcome by the organization's leaders, who openly spoke to guests about the agency's troubles and hopes for the future.
"You might say The MILL is going through career strains right now. Through teamwork, perseverance and many hours of grueling work both behind the scenes and publicly, The MILL's board and staff are working with state agencies to transform the way the agency cares for children," said MILL Board President Lori Wazny. "We've made great strides, and we're proud of The MILL."
The MILL, which stands from Motivating Individuals for Learning and Living, is a residential treatment center on Rockford?s far northwest side that specializes in the care of abused and neglected children.
The agency has been under investigation this past year by the Cook County public guardian's office and Department of Children and Family Services for what they described as 'dangerous,', 'unsafe' and 'extremely serious' problems.
Reports revealed that when some children were not beating each other or beating staff, they were trying to kill themselves or run away. The reports also noted filthy living conditions and complaints that therapy was hard to come by and supervision was inadequate.
DCFS, which licenses The MILL and sends children to be in The MILL?s care, sent monitors to the facility this summer. The monitors stayed round-the-clock for two weeks in August.
In the midst of the upheaval, The MILL lost its president and CEO. Robert Thorud, who headed The MILL for three years, left for undisclosed reasons Sept 7.
With the help of a team of residential treatment specialists from the University of Illinois at Chi-cago assigned to work with MILL officials to turn the agency around, supporters of The MILL have high hopes that Wednesday's successful event is the beginning of a new era.
State Rep. Chuck Jefferson, D-Rockford, said he had every confidence in The MILL.
“Things happen. We're all human," he said, taking a break from a silent auction table that featured dozens of signed sports memorabilia items. "The MILL is going to correct their problems and move on. That's what's important. To do right for the kids."
Letting recent news tarnish The MILL's long-standing reputation in Rockford would be a shame, he said.
"They've done a tremendous job out there in the past and can do it again,"he said.
"The MILL is under no threat of closing,? said state Rep. Dave Winters, who with his wife, Kathy, served as honorary chairs of this year's fund-raiser. "The team even said they've seen agencies in worse condition."
"This public guardian from Chicago is known for his flamboyant language. He's building his reputation ... He's looking for headlines, and he got them."
Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, reached by phone Wednesday night, said he stands by his team's findings.
"I have a number of lawyers, social workers and psychologists on my staff," he said. "We rely on expertise, not rhetoric"