In the spring of 1979, a group of community members met to discuss the care terminally ill individuals in the area were receiving. The group, which included religious leaders and medical professionals, believed there was a better way to provide comfort and care at the end of life.
These volunteers spent the next year building a board of directors, forming committees and talking about hospice to anyone who would listen.
By November 1980, Northern Illinois Hospice Association was chartered by the State of Illinois, had applied and received tax exemption status so it could operate as a charity, trained the first set of volunteers and had its first patient, Ralph Gerber.
A team of seven hospice volunteers worked with Ralph and his family for 53 contact hours, with an additional 53 hours the week of his death.
With the success of Ralph’s care, Northern Illinois Hospice Association opened services in full force and started assisting others to establish hospices in surrounding counties.
Over the last 35 years, founders, board members, executive directors, staff and volunteers have come and gone, but all of them have one thing in common: a commitment to helping terminally ill individuals have a choice in what their final months or weeks would be like.
A Founder's Perspective
Responding to a newspaper ad, nurse Carol Swenson attended a meeting about a new concept to the region: hospice.
She knew of the end-of-life philosophy and wanted to be a part of helping terminally ill patients have a voice. Swenson joined the soon-to-be Northern Illinois Hospice Association and began volunteering whenever possible.
“We spent the first five years simply explaining what hospice was and why it was a value,” she said. “I had such a passion for it; I told anyone who would listen.”
Besides spreading the word, Swenson also volunteered her nursing skills on a regular basis.
Even as Swenson became an oncology nurse for SwedishAmerican, she kept her eye on the special hospice room in the hospital designated to Northern Illinois Hospice at the time.
“Northern Illinois Hospice has grown leaps and bounds since my time,” she said. “I only regret that there are now for-profit hospices. I would like the public to be aware that they can still ask for Northern Illinois Hospice.”
Joining The Board
Starting as an on-call pharmacist for Northern Illinois Hospice, Bruce Ewald, R.Ph., joined the board of directors in the early ‘80s and still serves today.
“The idea of joining the board was interesting,” he said. “This was an opportunity to work with a group of people who helped others face their own deaths. Something we will all do. At this point (in the ‘80s) I provided on call pharmacy services, but I was receiving an education.”
“In the beginning, we knew what we wanted to accomplish, but we often wondered if we had the manpower...or resources (money) to get it done,” he said. “Today we are confident in the services we provide. We do not need to worry about having people to get the job done. Our staff is outstanding. They have always been and still are some of the most caring professionals with whom I have ever worked.”
Decades of Volunteering
Northern Illinois Hospice was built on the foundation of volunteers who wanted to make a difference. Although there are many paid staff, there are many more volunteers who still donate their time and talent to make a difference.
Mavis Arends volunteered for Northern Illinois Hospice for nearly 30 years.
“As long as I could drive, I certainly was there,” she had said. “I wish I had more time to devote to hospice. I loved the closeness of the staff and volunteers. Everybody knows me around there.”
Arends spent nearly 50 hours a month volunteering at places around Rockford.
“I love people and being around people,” she said. “I also love doing secretarial work.”
Arends started each Monday morning typing letters to donors of Northern Illinois Hospice, something she had done every week since the early ’80s.
“It was my favorite part of the week,” she said. “I got to start my week helping people and being a part of something really worthwhile.”
Northern Illinois Hospice has served approximately 3,500 patients in the past 35 years, and the staff has grown from seven volunteers to 42 paid employees. And they now have more than 150 volunteers to assist them. The Northern Illinois Hospice team serves patients in Winnebago, Boone and sections of Stephenson, Ogle and McHenry counties.
Arends retired from volunteering in the summer of 2015.
Northern Illinois Hospice founder Carol Swenson (right) is photographed with a fellow nursing student during the 1960s.
Mary Gerber holds the family poodle while her husband, Ralph, plays with the couple’s schnauzer, Buffy. Mr. Gerber was the first patient of Northern Illinois Hospice in November 1980. Photo property of Rockford Register Star (by Don Holt - Jan. 8, 1981).
A banner saluting volunteers was on display in front of the former Northern Illinois Hospice office in 1988. The site on Whitman Street currently houses Lucerne’s Fondue & Spirits.