The Rockford Register Star’s Excalibur award is given to an individual for community service, excellence and making a difference in the Rock River Valley. The Excelsior award goes to an organization for doing the same. Valeri DeCastris is an Excalibur finalist.

Name: Valeri DeCastris

Age: 62

Occupation: Environmental scientist (retired from state of Illinois, in private toxicology consulting practice and investor in Magpie Restaurant)

Community involvement: Established Rockford's Sister City relationship with Ferentino, Italy; president and founder, Ethnic Village Neighborhood Association; board member of Greater Rockford Italian American Association (GRIAA); co-chairperson of North Admissions Tent at Festa Italiana; 17 years on Citizens Utility Board (CUB), served as vice president; first executive director of SWIFTT, (Southwest Ideas for Today and Tomorrow, Inc.); community and political activist in Carbondale and Springfield (helped create Carbondale's City Energy Division and Springfield's Peace Center and Fair Trade Store); former AFSCME Springfield Local 805 vice president; inspired Springfield Legislative Internship in honor of late Rep. E.J. "Zeke" Giorgi; established Fibromyalgia Syndrome as recognized state of Illinois employees' disability, making case law; created Immigrants Park at downtown gateway to south Rockford; beautified and improved Ethnic Village with thousands of dollars in grants (including $10,000 state grant for lights around St. Anthony of Padua Parish, leading to its acclaimed bronze kids statuary garden); instrumental in South Main Street reconstruction, Morgan Street bridge and Montague Branch Library restoration and south Rockford land use planning.

What the nominator said: "She is a relentless and tireless social activist, exemplified by her notable achievements throughout four decades of community volunteerism throughout Illinois. And her hometown of Rockford has been fortunate to benefit from her altruism. ...

"Valeri is a possibility thinker who always asks, 'why not?' and looks for innovative, progressive solutions to society’s issues. Rockford has no better friend than her and she is most deserving of this recognition for her selfless work in helping to transform our city." — David Beccue, Valeri's husband

What inspired you to get so deeply involved in the community? I have always had a deep social conscience even as a child. I wrote a middle school essay that I called "Fortress America" that blew my English teacher away and was fortuitous as regards crime in US society now 50 years later. In eighth grade, I walked 20 miles for hunger in the Quad Cities. My mother had a very compassionate heart and I was deeply influenced by the TV coverage of the social unrest and movements of the 1960s. Despite having family ties to the late E.J. "Zeke" Giorgi (and working with him later in Springfield), I didn't get politicized until I moved to Carbondale to attend Southern Illinois University in the late 1970s. It was a hugely socially and politically involved campus and area (the school was closed during the Days of Rage anti-war riots and a campus building burned down). I fell in with people that were starting food cooperatives, advocating for low-income persons and utility ratepayers, marching for women's safety, creating solar energy cooperatives and energy education centers on campus, established a City of Carbondale Energy Division and energy demonstration projects and audits, and preserving prime farmland and promoting economic development in deep southern Illinois. Moving to Springfield to advise the General Assembly on energy, environmental and economic development issues, I developed political skills and saw close-up just how policy is crafted in Illinois. I was aghast at how my once-beautiful, safe and vibrant Italian neighborhood of south Rockford had, together with the west side of Rockford, been allowed to deteriorate. I wanted to take the organizing and political skills back to my ancestral neighborhood to help it and Rockford's downtown become vital again.

What drives you to make Rockford a better place? I was transforming Rockford before we had a Transform Rockford movement and group. That is because I am in love with my hometown, and after living in several Illinois cities, could never understand Rockford's inferiority complex. I think the city has great assets and potential and its citizens are well-known in Springfield for being very community-minded and civicly-engaged in volunteerism. However, after a 20-year absence from Rockford, I was appalled at how the city had allowed the west side of the Rock River and my south Rockford Italian neighborhood to so terribly decline. There was poor city planning and allowing the tollway to locate so far east, instead of being routed on the Woodruff Expressway to downtown created great disparities in development and investment, much to our detriment. A city cannot have one half of it wither and die without adversely affecting the entire city. And a vibrant downtown is essential to a city's success. This is an issue of ethnic, racial and class disparity and discrimination to allow this disinvestment and blight to happen and not rectify it. So, I thought someone had better step up to the plate to reclaim these older areas and preserve our cultural heritage and I had the skills and drive and passion to do so. I convinced my father not to sell his family home on Cunningham Street, and to allow me to move back into it and the DeCastris family has now proudly been there for 95 years. It's almost a centennial "farm." It is important for people like me and my husband, who, as we have been told many times, "don't need to live there" because we have advanced degrees and don't fit the demographic, to actually invest in older areas and better them as "urban pioneers." It's infectious and gratifying with wide-ranging great implications to make good things happen in areas once dismissed as unsalvageable. We are having fun transforming people and this city.

Kevin Haas: 815-987-1410; khaas@rrstar.com; @KevinMHaas