Northwest Business Magazine

Sense of Place Drives the ‘Come-Back Kids’

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It’s easy to take for granted the lifestyle and career possibilities available here in the Rockford area. But to these “boomerangers” or “come-back kids,” coming home was a conscious choice – one made all the easier by Rockford’s growing sense of identity.

Growing up, Tiana McCall dreamed of becoming like Clair Huxtable, the TV mom from “The Cosby Show” – a successful, college-educated career woman in a big city.

Twenty years later, McCall is living her dream, but with an unexpected turn. She’s making it in her hometown of Rockford.

Alli Bernardi dreamed of landing in Chicago, but fate brought her back to Rockford. And then, it led her to Dallas before she came home for good.

Call them “boomerangers” or “come-back kids,” or call them crazy (some do), yet plenty of young people are finding it’s not only possible, but preferable to make a successful career and an idyllic lifestyle in their hometown.

“Just because you return home does not mean that you’ve failed in any other place that you’ve lived,” says McCall. “Returning home is not a failure.”


That Rockford natives want to return home is just one signal that Transform Rockford is making an impact in its strategic plan for the region’s self-renewal. There’s a growing “sense of place” around Rockford, and with it, a renewed reputation – among locals and out-of-towners alike.

But in the late 1990s, it was a different story. McCall wanted out. It was through a YMCA program targeting black youths that she saw her ticket. On a college tour, she fell in love with Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college in Atlanta, Ga.

Born the fifth of six children to parents from the South, McCall was the first in her immediate family to reach college. It was an eye-opening experience.

“You see a lot of achieving African-Americans in every walk of life in Atlanta,” she says. “Business owners, college presidents, doctors, athletes, nerdy scholars, a majority of the newscasters. It showed me that we can do anything if we have an opportunity.”

Following graduation in 2001, McCall spent two years establishing herself in Atlanta. And then Rockford called.


When Bernardi graduated from Augustana College in 2009, she quickly jumped into Rockford’s budding downtown scene, even choosing an apartment off Whitman Street.

“My parents said, ‘You’re moving where?’” she recalls. “I had a lot of friends who were like, ‘You live where? Are there a lot of guns?’ Are you kidding me?”

 

Bernardi jumped right into the early City Markets and Dinner on the Dock nights at Prairie Street Brewhouse. Around 2012, her employer announced it was leaving Rockford, and Bernardi saw a chance to advance her career with the large, national company. She left for Dallas.

 

Her new home put Bernardi amidst resort-like apartment complexes, numerous recreational opportunities and a busy arts scene. It was all fun, but she found it easy to get lost in the shuffle and felt a constant pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.” And what she saw in the corporate world was discouraging.

“Of the women I saw in the higher-level corporate roles, none of them had a work-life balance,” she recalls. “A lot of them never had kids or a family. You’d be getting emails from them on a Saturday night. That’s not a life I’m interested in.”

In 2017, Bernardi’s father offered her a chance to return to Rockford and join the firm he co-owns. Alli jumped at the chance.


“I bought a house, sight-unseen,” she says, laughing. “Kind of crazy, but I knew exactly what neighborhood I wanted to be in.”

Unlike Bernardi, McCall’s homecoming in 2003 drew confusion. “Every conversation was, ‘What are you doing back here? Why would you leave Atlanta? You’re crazy doing this,’” she says.

But she wasn’t deterred. Following the example of her mother, an ardent advocate for their far west-side neighborhood, McCall volunteered prolifically.

 

“I would start jumping into things that I felt were important to the African-American youth and the community,” she says. “I started volunteering. I went to Rockford University and got my MBA, and then continued on choosing places of employment and different community activities to work toward the betterment of Rockford.”

Today, she’s still taking youths on college tours, even bringing her 16-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. She became Winnebago County’s first African-American County Clerk in 2018 and this past December was named the Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer for the county board administration. The 40-year-old is determined to be a role model.

“My goal is to expose students to different educational and career opportunities,” she says. “It’s not just exposing them but letting them see that whatever they aspire to be is attainable.”

Bernardi’s homecoming coincides with an increasing number of millennials returning home. The 32-year-old enjoys the “little bubble” she’s found in her neighborhood.

“When people are like, ‘I’m bored, there’s nothing to do here,’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know what’s going on here,’” Bernardi says. “I guarantee you could find something cool to do almost every night.”

McCall doesn’t worry about whether her children will boomerang back to Rockford someday. If they do, she’ll have only encouragement.

“A lot of people questioned my motives and said you’re crazy for coming back,” she says, “but I just began cutting them off and saying, ‘I’m needed here in my community.’”

To learn more, visit TransformRockford.org.

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