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Women's History Month: Maureen Kirschmann - Leading Rockford Families Through the COVID-19 Crisis

As the pandemic enveloped the world, bringing uncertainty and chaos, Maureen Kirschman stood as a beacon of hope and resilience in the Rockford community. At a time when the very fabric of education and community support was under threat, Maureen, along with the help of her Family and Community Engagement team at Rockford Public Schools, helped orchestrate a series of strategic interventions. Those interventions not only addressed immediate concerns, but also laid the groundwork for sustainable community engagement and support.

Helping Families During the Peak of the Pandemic

“Those… that we know are already struggling… they're going to experience it the hardest," recalls Maureen. "Those are the families that we’re going to see fall further and further behind,”

With that knowledge in mind, Maureen and her team embarked on a major effort to identify critical resource gaps in the community and coordinate efforts to ensure that no family or student in Rockford was left behind. Part of that effort was delivering food to communities across the city in school buses.

“We didn't turn anybody away and that was really, really big for us… You didn't have to have any sort of student ID or any sort of identification to come up and say, ‘I need food.’ ‘It was you need food? Okay, here, get food, because we want to make sure that everybody is taken care of [and] everybody is fed.”

The pandemic disrupted parents and their careers. They suddenly needed childcare during times their kids would normally be in school. Maureen’s team had a plan for that too: a detailed map with resources, such as childcare providers and open community centers for families.

Under Maureen's guidance, the asset mapping initiative was not merely a tool for resource allocation, but became a cornerstone for community collaboration. By identifying food gaps and resource disparities, she and her team were able to direct support where it was most needed, ensuring that students and families had access to essential services during a time of global crisis. This effort underscored the importance of understanding community needs at a granular level and responding with agility and precision.

As a result, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce named her to the 2022 class of its 40 Under Forty, an honor for those who distinguished themselves in their professional field, engaged citizens, and provided leadership to the community.

Maureen is quick to share the credit.

“It’s not just my work. It's the work that we do in partnership with other incredible women, other organizations and other leaders in our community who come to the table collectively and say, ‘We have a problem and we have to figure out a way to come up with solutions. We have to set aside our differences and really just say, ‘What's our framework? How are we going to move forward in a way that is beneficial for everyone keeping our families and our students at the center of the work.”

The Power of Collaboration & Leadership

One of Maureen's key achievements was her ability to foster a spirit of collaboration among various community partners. But, more importantly, collaboration with her team.

“We have to have a space where we can have very, very, very passionate discussions about what is important to us in order to really to go forward.”

The unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant that Maureen's team often had to navigate uncharted territory, making decisions without a playbook. However, their commitment to serving the community and their willingness to adapt and learn from each situation enabled them to overcome these challenges. Maureen's leadership style—characterized by open communication, inclusivity, and a willingness to listen—played a crucial role.

“I’d rather be in a position where I can safely support people to try new things. For somebody to have an amazing idea or suggestion that we're going to miss out on because they're too afraid to speak up in a meeting. I tell my team all the time,, 'Please dissent.'”

Continuing To Lead

Not one to get complacent, Maureen took the next step in developing her career. She enrolled in Leadership Rockford, an eight month program designed to help its graduates develop their leadership skills and enhance their awareness of business, government, and civic issues.

“It was an opportunity to connect with other professionals and other leaders in Rockford… to be able to go into different spaces that I might not normally have the opportunity to go into and to make connections that we continue to use daily in our work.”

One connection Leadership Rockford provided Maureen was Orlando Toatley, of the Rockford Mass Transit District. Together, they now help to promote the Free Rides for Students Program.

“We’ve been able to coordinate with him to even do ride alongs on the routes to help students feel safe getting on the busses.”

Maureen also is involved in many community groups, such as United Way of Rock River Valley and the Rockford Area Arts Council where she’s a longtime board member.

“When we have a strong art community, the communities thrive.”

Currently, RPS has a summer arts program that operates at the Washington Park Community Center. Maureen says some kids start the program feeling skeptical.

“They've walked into spaces thinking this is silly. ‘You want me to do this?’ This is silly.’”

Those “silly” activities all provide ways for kids to express themselves. Those outlets include dancing, slam poetry, and writing - turning skepticism into exhilaration.

“They're embracing all of the mediums as a way for our students to express themselves in a really positive way and also in a way for them to have a voice to…speak about real social issues that are happening and how it impacts them on a daily basis.

Reflections on Women's History Month

In celebrating Women's History Month, Maureen's story serves as a powerful reminder of the role women play in leading and shaping our communities, especially during times of crisis. Her reflections on the women who have inspired her underscore the importance of mentorship, support, and recognition of the contributions of women in all spheres of life.

“I could go on and on and name different women in our community who really are the ones who inspire me the most. I'm here and this is home. We can look on a broader scale, but every day I see women that I just look at [and say], 'You are amazing. Our community is so much better because you're a part of it.”

She has this piece of advice for women trying to make their mark on their communities.

“All of our voices matter… If you feel passionately about something, don't be afraid to say how you feel. Don't be afraid to challenge people who might be trying to keep you out. If you have an idea and you think that it's worth pursuing, figure out a way to push forward… just because you're told no once doesn't mean "no" is the end.

Maureen's journey is a beacon for aspiring young women, illustrating that with passion, resilience, and a commitment to community, it is possible to overcome challenges and make a significant impact.

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