Working together for progress

High school students in Pontiac, Ill., created a pharmaceutical disposal program that served as a model for a statewide effort. Even after they’ve graduated, these Pontiac students and others participate in the annual Clean Water Celebration in Peoria, highlighting how significant change can come from modest beginnings.

That’s important for Karen Farris-Cotton ’96.

“They (Pontiac students) highlight their pharmaceutical disposal efforts, including legislation they had passed, as well as another project focused on saving the endangered alligator snapping turtle,” said Farris-Cotton, external affairs manager for Illinois-American Water. “They are doing great things and it reinforces that these partnerships have an impact.” 

She noted Peoria GreenSplash, a collaboration by several groups including the water company in an economically struggling part of the city, also helped connect and educate children.

“Reaching our young customers is incredibly important because they are the ones who will help change the world, who will help protect the environment. I’m passionate about creating (professional) partnerships which benefit the community. Collaboration can take a great idea and make it exceptional.”

Farris-Cotton cited the NAACP, Living to Serve Foundation, Inc., Peoria Playhouse, Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce, Sun Foundation and It Takes a Village as some of the organizations involved in partnerships. For her community work, she was inducted into Peoria’s African American Hall of Fame, receiving the hall’s Garrett Humanitarian Award for Business.

Starting as a child writing reports of neighborhood news and her own commercials in her hometown of Canton, Ill., Farris-Cotton pointed toward a Bradley journalism degree and a career in communications. After graduation, she worked as a reporter/photographer and in public relations before spending the last 13 years with Illinois-American, managing its community outreach and serving as spokesperson. 

Other honors have come from the state Department of Human Rights and the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce along with inclusion in annual listings for the 25 Women in Leadership and the 40 Leaders Under Forty. She was honored with an alumni achievement award from Spoon River College and received a variety of industry honors, including national achievement awards for projects targeting pharmaceuticals disposal and creating brand ambassadors for the water company.

“Being inducted (into the hall of fame) represents the impact I try to make every day. I love the community and see every day the local heroes and champions working hard to make a difference. They help me do better and be better — and in the end, that’s the goal, to keep improving and making a difference.”

 Bob Grimson ‘81