Lawyer, entrepreneur and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate Carmen Rossi has long been a believer in the importance of charitable works.
Rossi, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Illinois—the master’s in recreation, sport and tourism—years ago established the Chicago Knight Life Charities Scholarship. In 2014 he started "Chicago Knight Life," a company he built to involve his hospitality portfolio with local Chicago charities. Chicago Knight Life reaches out directly to Chicago organizations and charities to provide a warm meal and companionship. All employees of his hospitality portfolio are encouraged to volunteer for weekly visits to charities.
“I would just put up signup sheets throughout our businesses and just say, ‘Hey, I'm going to show up here at this time. And if you want to, as well, great. If not, sounds good.’ And those signup sheets were never empty. I mean, every single day,” Rossi said.
The activities ranged from passing out food and engaging in conversation to enhance life. Chicago Knight Life has worked with Little Black Pearl, Sarah's Circle, Ronald McDonald House, Asian Youth Services and many others.
Now Rossi has pledged $250,000 over a five-year period to the RST Domestic Site Tour Fund that will go toward paying part of students’ costs for RST180, a summer term class created and overseen by RST Clinical Associate Professor Mike Raycraft. The class includes a bus trip to historic sites of relevance for RST majors.
“I live in the community,” Rossi said, explaining his motivation for the donation. “And the community has been amazing. I'm so absolutely fortunate for being able to have experienced the degree of success as a product of the community. And the community is representative of so many different cogs in so many different organizations.”
Rossi started his academic career at Illinois as an English and political science major as an undergrad. Then he earned a master's degree in RST and then he received a law degree at Northern Illinois University. He passed the bar in 2012, and worked for a law firm in Joliet, Ill., where he concentrated primarily on appellate court drafting. But he pivoted and founded 8 Hospitality Group, a restaurant, hospitality-development, and management company that specializes in food and beverage marketing, branding, promotions, public relations, and operations.
Rossi owns several restaurants in the Chicago area and recently became a partner with Champaign bar owner Scott Cochrane in the purchase of KAM’s, a fixture in campustown. The route might seem circuitous, but to Rossi, it is all part of the journey.
“Not everyone knows exactly where they're going to land in the next four years or what they're interested in,” said Rossi, who is from Frankfort, Ill. “I mean, I have a law firm today. And our concentration is mostly regulatory, government lobbying. But that was not at all what I had ever envisioned, even while I was in law school. And I think it is a contributor to a larger footprint, a larger vision.”
For his generous spirit, Rossi also credits his parents, who he said were patient as he matriculated for 10 years and tried to find what suited his interests best.
“Failure is sometimes a very necessary part of life's lessons and journey,” he said. “And for any students out there who are frustrated with themselves and any parents who are equally frustrated or kicking themselves in the butt, I am one of those who lived with my parents until I was 27 years old. And I am super grateful that they allowed me that roof because it took off so many of the pressures and allowed me the time to develop.”
That is part of the reason Rossi wants to give back.
“(Charity) is fundamental,” he said. “If we had to create a bubble chart with singular themed words of this conversation, one of the words might be, community. If you believe that, and you make that a central tenet of your mission statement, then giving back is not a preference. It is a daily commitment.”
And it is a commitment Rossi takes seriously. His five-year pledge to RST180 will help students go on a trip that for many—including Rossi himself—can be life-changing, as they learn about how to deliver a variety of leisure experiences to different populations. This can include anything from managing a professional sports team to running a historical museum to overseeing a state park facility.
In previous iterations, the multiple day bus trip has included visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, as well as Niagara Falls, the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of the famed Woodstock concert, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I loved it,” Rossi said about his RST180 experience. “When you talk about political science in English, and then you go, RST has disciplines that are much—they're hands on, boots on the ground. And the best way to learn is to engage. Not to take away from the academic curriculum, specifically. But there is a practical application that will best serve you for success. And that practical application is showing up, is getting involved, is trying it out. There's only so much a textbook or course tech can teach and educate.”
Rossi gives much of the credit to Raycraft.
“Shout out to Mike Raycraft. He’s had a significant impact on my experience at the University of Illinois and in the larger community. He came up with the idea of creating a program through which I could provide financial support to help students to enroll in RST 180. And I’m so excited to participate in our next idea together.”
One former RST student who was a participant in RST180 loved the experience.
“This trip was definitely one of my most memorable experiences at Illinois!,” said Meridith Bradford, a 2017 RST graduate who now works as a specialist at Apple.
That kind of enthusiasm is thrilling for Rossi.
“I'm excited to see where this goes. And I'm not hardly done. And as long as you'll have me, as long as the AHS family and community will have me, I'm committed to staying involved and excited to see where our journey together will go next.”
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