NEWS

Donations intended for park animals stolen

Geri Nikolai

A thief or thieves recently walked off with about $100 in coins, contributed by residents to buy feed for the Lockwood Park animals.

The money was in collection jars at Pinnon’s meat market on North Court Street and Taco John’s on North Main, said George Franklin, who leads the Friends of Lockwood Park volunteer group.

When Franklin made his monthly rounds to empty the jars, both were missing.

Someone had walked off with them, and the $50 each jar averaged in a month.

Franklin didn’t call police, figuring there was no way to prove who took the money.

Instead, he’s looking for secure boxes to replace the stolen containers, and plans to put them back in Taco John’s and Pinnon’s.

It’s a minor setback, Franklin said, and not enough to derail the progress he and his group of 80 volunteers have made at Lockwood, the popular park in northwest Rockford with horses year-round and farm animals in the summer.

In 2007, more than 150,000 people visited Lockwood, said Jay Sandine of the Rockford Park District. That’s a huge increase from just a few years ago, when the 115-acre park at 5209 Safford Road was in danger of closing.

After a Park District tax referendum failed in 2003, Franklin and the Friends stepped forward, Sandine said.

“They helped so much in cleaning the park up and (building) its reputation. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Sandine said. “They put the park back on the map.”

The Friends raise money for park expenses, including feed for the 37 horses, two donkeys and llama that winter there. In summer, a cow, pigs and other animals join them for the children’s farm.

The group also has cleared trails for horseback riding and supplied volunteers to drive tractors for wagon rides at the park.

Thanks to the Friends, Sandine said, businesses are flocking to Lockwood Park for company picnics, and the park is making money by boarding 23 horses, up from just three a year ago. It remains the most popular park around in fall, when haunted hayrides are offered.

Franklin said the volunteers, and some generous business and individual donors, have been great sources of support. A neighboring farmer gave the district 40 acres to use for five years, on which the district raises hay for winter horse feed. Friends volunteers bale the hay and store it in the barn each summer.

The long-term dream for the park is to erect a year-round indoor riding arena that could be used for horse shows or other animal exhibits. The district received a $40,000 gift for that, but needs a lot more, Sandine said.

Right now, he and Franklin just want to get the word out that the money raised in the collection jars is important to Lockwood Park.

“That money is vital,” Franklin said. “We use it for things like buying medication when a horse is sick. We’ve got a veterinarian who donates services but we’ve got to pay for supplies,” he said.

So collection boxes, of some sort, will be back.

“We get so much support from people, I want to put them back out there,” he said. “Some months, we have gotten up to $120 in a box.”

Staff writer Geri Nikolai can be reached at 815-987-1337 or gnikolai@rrstar.com.