2021 Rockford Heroes: Michelle Pankow and Joe Danforth, Making a Difference in Their Community

Division Chief Michele Pankow is being recognized with the 2021 Red Cross Disaster Services Hero Award. Michele is an everyday hero in the true sense of the word. As Division Chief of Operations at the Rockford Fire Department, Michele oversees the fire department’s 250 uniformed firefighters, and their responses to nearly 30,000 service calls each year. For 28 years, Michele has dedicated her career to disaster response by working through the ranks as a firefighter, emergency medical services operations chief, lieutenant, captain and district chief.

Michele also has an uncanny ability to manage and communicate across agencies, serving as the emergency services disaster coordinator for the City of Rockford and Winnebago County. When any type of large-scale disaster strikes, whether it be a tornado, civil unrest, or even a pandemic, Michele centralizes regional response and rescue agencies at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The needs for each event are different and must be assessed and acted upon quickly.

“The fire service has prepared me for this because I can piece it together in my head to think of how we function as a fire department,” Michele said.

Her actions during the COVID-19 pandemic are just one example of how Michele’s flexible and fast-paced thinking helped so many individuals in a crisis.

“Starting out, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Michele said. “Who knew we’d end up a year later this way? Early on, our focus was to support the Health Department on gatherings. There wasn’t really one thing with the pandemic. It was one thing after another after another.”

Michele and her team opened the EOC on March 12th, 2020 and have offered community assistance on many fronts including reaching out to school districts to feed kids who previously relied on school meals, distributing critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and now, supporting local COVID-19 mass vaccination sites.

In disasters both large and small, Michele’s connections to the American Red Cross are frequent. At the scene of home fires, she works with Red Cross responders to find immediate shelter for displaced families and individuals. In her disaster coordinator role, Michele partners with the Red Cross on large-scale and longer-term recovery projects. A recent example of this partnership is the 2019 flood in Rockford that damaged over 500 homes in the area. Emergency responders aren’t there only in the face of disaster.  They partner with the community to ensure a forward path to recovery, which is something that can take years of planning and committed teamwork.

“I really enjoy being a part of this,” Michel said. “I feel extremely humbled and extremely fortunate to be in the company of such good people. I’m constantly surrounded by creative, good, and innovative folks that want to help. It’s infectious. It’s contagious. Whether I’m in the Emergency Operations Center or at the fire department, I feel great being a part of that team.”

Michele shines as a role model on the job and outside of work. She volunteers with the Young Women’s Leadership Organization through the Rockford Public School District. There, she mentors students one-on-one about career opportunities and talks frankly about the challenges of her own career, including what she enjoys most, and how she made the choices to get where she is today. Michele has no shortage of inspiration to share.

“I feel great when we’re able to save a house or pull somebody out on an EMS call. Even just bringing down cleaning buckets to help someone clean out floors from a flood. Being able to help people, you’d be amazed how appreciative people are of the smallest gestures,” Michele said.

Sergeant Joseph (Joe) Danforth is one of our 2021 Red Cross Law Enforcement Heroes. As a sergeant with the Rockford Police Department, Joe says the job comes with its challenges, but also comes with many rewards.

“It’s a fun job,” said Joe. “The most rewarding part about being a police officer is … knowing that a lot of people still need you.”

He has served the Rockford Police Department for 25 years. As a kid, Joe was inspired to become a police officer after watching Shaft movies and the TV series SWAT.

“To see those shows and to see black officers — I wanted to do that,” Joe explained.

Raised by a single mother on the west side of Rockford, he experienced gang activity in his neighborhood growing up and the effects that violence had on his community.

After joining the police force, Joe decided to stay on the west side of Rockford. He said that in order to better serve a community, it helps to live there and experience what they are experiencing.

“I grew up on the west side, so I was going to stay on the west side,” added Joe. “I’m from here. I’ve seen a lot of stuff growing up. I wanted to stay on the west side where my people were at.”

After working with the police force for a while, Joe wanted to do more. He noticed that basketball was keeping his son away from gang activity and wanted to spread this to other children. Joe decided to start a program that would help.

In 2005, he founded Rockford Five-0. It started as a youth basketball training program for kids that could not afford to be on a travel team.

“We help a lot of single parents’ kids, [and] boys with no father figure at home. In the beginning I just thought it was something you were supposed to do. I didn’t look at it as ‘I’m saving the world,’” said Joe. “I didn’t look at it like that at first,” he explained.

In the beginning, he struggled financially to provide everything needed to have a team, often having to pay for things himself. However, as time went on, the program grew and so did the volunteers.

Since starting the program, Joe has helped over 300 kids, some of whom have received scholarships for their athletic performance. One of his alums, his own son, Rockford basketball star Fred VanVleet, now plays for the Toronto Raptors.

Joe sponsors about 10-15 kids at a time, helping with meals, shoes, travel costs, tournament fees, and uniforms. He stays in touch with many of the kids that were in the program. Some have gone on to college at Kankakee, Carl Sandburg College, Illinois Valley College, and North Alabama.

“We try to find those kids that really want to do something. No matter what background you come from, [or] economic situation, we find a way to help you out. It’s got to be kids that really want to do something, that want more for themselves than what’s right in front of them,” said Joe.

The majority of kids start in the program around third or fourth grade, and usually remain throughout high school. However, the organization sees themselves as a family and once you enter, you never truly leave.

“If this sport can help kids stay out of gangs and stay out of trouble, and they’re dedicated to what we do, then I got you. But if you want to stay on the streets and mess around and not go to school, then I can’t mess with you. I never looked at it as an outreach program, but I guess it kind of is,” explained Joe.

Joe thanks his wife, Sue Danforth, for being his number one supporter, and for helping him and the organization be successful.

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