ROCK FALLS – When Sandra Julifs took a job with the Tri-County Opportunities Council in 1972, she planned to stay with the group only temporarily. She considered the commute from her home in Rochelle too far to stay for a long time.
But her experience with the nonprofit agency has hardly been short-term.
On Jan. 15, she will retire as president and CEO of Tri-County after working there for four decades – 29 at the helm.
In the 1970s, she said, “We had next-to-no money, a staff of 14, no benefits other than paid leave, and my job was supposed to be a temporary one.”
Now Tri-County has more than 400 employees – 150 of whom work in the Sterling, Rock Falls and Dixon areas.
“It’s time for me to leave, to move on to other adventures,” Julifs said in a news release.
During an interview, Julifs, a Sterling resident, said she wasn’t quite sure what those adventures would be. She will be a consultant with Tri-County for a year.
Replacing her as CEO will be Terri Lawrence, who has been with the agency in various positions for 33 years.
When it started in 1965, the Tri-County Opportunities Council served only three counties, as its name indicated.
These days, it covers nine counties: Whiteside, Lee, Carroll, Ogle, Bureau, LaSalle, Putnam, Marshall and Stark. Its programs include emergency help for the poor, low-income home energy assistance, the Foster Grandparents program, the state weatherization assistance program, a housing project, a homemaker program and Head Start.
Tri-County is a part of Community Action, one of President Lyndon Johnson’s programs in the War on Poverty.
“Community Action aims to focus all parts of the community on poverty,” said Julifs, who comes from New Jersey. “People forget that life wasn’t easy for people when there weren’t a lot of these programs. A lot of people fell into traps they couldn’t get out of.”
Tri-County is based in buildings at a former lumber yard in Rock Falls. There’s nothing fancy about the offices, but the agency doesn’t have the money for major upgrades, Julifs said.
“We are so accountable,” she said. “We are monitored. The money we get goes to the people we serve.”
Over the years, the demands on Tri-County’s services have increased with the closings of the steel mill and other companies.
“Years ago, a kid could graduate and get a job at the steel mill,” Julifs said. “It was a very robust economy.”
Lawrence, who heads Tri-County’s Head Start program, said nearly all of the parents have one, two or three jobs.
“You can’t live on $8.25 an hour. They [parents] work but can’t make it,” she said.
“They don’t have the skills necessary to get anything but entry-level jobs.”
What's offered at Tri-County
Here are some of the programs offered by the Rock Falls-based Tri-County Opportunities Council:
• Community Services Block Grant: Help for people to complete vocational training, emergency assistance, general outreach services, scholarship program, family and community development services.
• Homeless programs: Assistance in obtaining shelter and preventing eviction.
• Bureau County Food Pantry: Nutritional needs assistance for 1,269 families during 2011.
• Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program: Help for making homes more energy-efficient.
• Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program: Assistance for households at or below 150 percent of the poverty level with home energy needs.
• Head Start: Early education for children in low-income families.
• Foster Grandparents: Stipends for low-income people age 55 or older to give mentoring services to at-risk children.
• Homemaker Program: In-home care as an alternative to nursing home placement.
• Housing Program: Housing for low-income residents.
Call 815-625-7830 or 815-875-6064 for more information.