STERLING – Jesus Torres died in his home around Valentine's Day, but no one noticed. The police discovered his body in his west-end mobile home in early March.
One neighbor wondered why Torres, in his 40s, hadn't used his pickup truck in weeks, but she saw others knock on his door with no answer. She figured he wasn't there.
It was only after Torres' brother started inquiring that police went in the home.
For Sterling Mayor Skip Lee, the situation was "beyond sad."
"It tells me that we have become so programmed into our own ruts, without seeing the bigger world around us," Lee said. "We get into our routines to where we lose perspective of what's around us."
On Saturday, 17 churches – 14 in Sterling and three in Rock Falls – held "I Love My Neighborhood" community socials. They invited neighbors.
The goal: To get residents to know the neighbors on each side and in front and back.
The socials were a part of the work of the local WeCan group, which local leaders formed to deal with gangs and other issues.
In June, neighborhood potlucks are planned. Lee wants to hold one at his house on 13th Street. He doesn't know some of his new neighbors.
The mayor said two schools of thought exist on how to address gangs and drugs: One is to put boots on the ground and defeat the bad guys. The other is to not only put boots on the ground, but also win residents' hearts and minds. That's where community-oriented policing comes in, a strong suit of the Police Department, Lee said.
"If you don't have hearts and minds, you won't win," he said.
If neighbors get to know one another, he said, they can do a better job noticing problems in their areas – and that benefits everyone.
People help one another when big tragedies hit, such as the Boston Marathon, but it shouldn't have to take such disasters for community togetherness to happen, Lee said.
"Neighborhoods used to be places where people helped each other out," he said. "If we can get people to shake hands and say hello, we're over the hump."
As they did last year, local leaders are planning to take part in the National Night Out event in August, which is meant to get neighbors together in local parks to inform them about community efforts.
In October, organizers are planning a concluding celebration, but they're still working on the details.
Sterling Police Lt. Doug Fargher said WeCan comes up with outside-the-box ways to deal with addressing crime.
"In Whiteside County, we're blessed that all of the agencies work together," he said. "The goal was for the churches to open the doors to make a place in their neighborhoods for neighbors to come in. It was to push a sense of community."
The Rev. Jeff Coester, pastor of First Congregation (The Big Red Church), said the socials were like most first-time events – "slow in terms of attendance."
But churches reached many neighbors as part of the process, he said.
"We made door-to-door contacts," he said. "We spoke with people in the neighborhoods who appreciated what was done. It started conversations. That bodes well for the future."
West Sterling gets 'bad rap'
STERLING – The west end of Sterling has an "undeserved, bad rap," Mayor Skip Lee says.
Years ago, when Lee decided to move to West 13th Street, people warned him about the west end, he said. He dismissed those concerns.
"I would have no hesitancy about doing it over and moving to the west end. Once you get a bad rap, changing that perception is hard," said Lee, who is marking 2 years as mayor this month. "I've always been proud to call myself a west-ender. I can show you homes on the west end where people work hard to maintain them."
He said it would be hard to bring new retail development to west Sterling, although he noted a number of well-frequented small businesses in that area.
He said he could envision development such as a fast-food restaurant near Casey's General Store on West Fourth Street. A McDonald's, for instance, recently opened next to Casey's in Morrison.
Sterling and Rock Falls churches that took part in last Saturday's "I Love My Neighborhood" community socials:
Abiding Word, Sixth Avenue and Lynn Boulevard, Sterling
Amazing Grace, 512 Second Ave., Sterling
City of God, 912 W. Sixth St., Sterling
Emmanuel Baptist, 1904 18th Ave., Sterling
Firehouse of God Ministries, 306 Fifth Ave., Sterling
First Church of the Nazarene, 411 13th Ave., Sterling
First Christian Church, 506 Fifth Ave., Rock Falls
First Christian Church, 3400 Sixth Ave., Sterling
First Presbyterian, 410 Second Ave., Sterling
Full Gospel Assembly, 3805 E. 23rd St., Sterling
Grace Episcopal, 707 First Ave., Sterling
Rock Falls United Methodist, 210 Fourth Ave., Rock Falls
St. Andrew, 708 10th Ave., Rock Falls
St. John Lutheran, 703 Third Ave., Sterling
St. Paul Lutheran, LeFevre Road and 16th Avenue, Sterling
First Congregational (The Big Red Church), 311 Second Ave., Sterling
Wesley United Methodist, 2200 16th Ave., Sterling
For more information on WeCan, a group working to deal with gangs and other issues, contact Sterling Police Lt. Doug Fargher at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 815-632-6640 or the Rev. Jeff Coester, pastor of First Congregational Church, at 815-625-5112.