ROCK FALLS – Wally Long has been in the same shoes as the men and women who congregated Thursday at Harvest Time Bible Church.
Long, 50, struggled with addiction from an early age. It turned his life into turmoil: He lost jobs, got divorced, and found himself in trouble with the law.
After a DUI arrest in 2002, Long realized he had had enough. He sought help for his addiction and began volunteering in the community, his treatment center, and at the county jail.
“It just felt good to really seize life,” he said.
Thursday, he found another way to help others put their lives back on track.
Long was one of about 175 volunteers and vendors at Summit of Hope, a community expo held to provide resources to help probationers and parolees get back on their feet, to keep them from reoffending – and to let them know that the community is here to help.
“Most of these people are not self-sustaining,” Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said. “They’ve been told what to do, and then all of a sudden, they come out and there’s no structure.”
The program was launched in 2010 by a parole officer in southern Illinois.
Kevin Johnson, director of court services, Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff, Rock Falls Police Chief Mike Kuelper, and Wilhelmi spearheaded the effort to bring it to Whiteside County, along with the Whiteside Community Action Network, or WeCAN, which fights drug and gang activity in the county.
About 200 offenders came to the expo, where 30 local organizations were on hand to help them sign up for GED classes, set up a bank account, get a state ID card, HIV testing and other services, Johnson said.
Each was paired with a volunteer who walked around with them to the various tables.
Calista Kern-Lyons, 15, of Amboy, heard about the program through her church and decided to volunteer.
“There are a lot of people out there that we’re going to see today that don’t have hope,” she said. “I hope this brings them hope. I want to be able to make them smile and to help them in some way.”
Johnson said he would like to do the summit at least once a year and would like to see potential employers participate.
Long spoke with many people Thursday, providing them resources on getting sober. His advice: See what the community has to offer and take advantage of it.
“Back then, I didn’t think the community was there for me ... it’s really important to just give it a chance.”
To get involved
Go to www.summitofhope.org to learn more about the program and how to sign up for future events.