A former track star and Bradley University graduate, Rachael Parker has steadily worked her way up as a trusted leader in business and government. She recently won election as Peoria County Clerk after being appointed to the position in 2019. Prior to that appointment, she represented District 5 on the Peoria County Board for nine years, sat on the Peoria Public Schools board, and served as economic development director for the City of Chillicothe, among other positions. She is also an entrepreneur, having launched her small business, SweetCakes by Rachael, out of her home back in 1990. Active in her church, neighborhood and community, she has two children and two grandchildren.
Tell us about your family and childhood. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois, the youngest of six. My father passed away from cancer when I was five and my mom never remarried. When I was growing up, I loved singing with my cousins. My uncle was a minister and we would often go with him to various church events and sing. We were young and thought we were a professional singing group—it was a lot of fun! I can only remember a house full of love and support. My brother Floyd and my sisters Frances, Sally, Rosie and Viola all helped keep the household going. They worked in the kitchen at this restaurant where my mom worked, and to this day they share stories of what they did at their first job and how little money they made. As the baby of the family, I just reaped the rewards of them working! I never told them, but I appreciate how they helped.
What were your hobbies and interests as a kid? Who were some of your early influences?
My hobby was running track. I started running when I was nine years old. I ran with an AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] team outside of running for my school team. It was a great release for me—I was fast and won lots of races. I was invited to go on a track and field tour during my senior year of high school; one of the teachers helped me raise the funds to go. It was an experience of a lifetime. We toured France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany; saw the Olympic village in Innsbruck, Austria; and ended the tour in England where the team split into pairs and we had the honor of living with a family for one week to learn about their culture. Thinking back on that trip, I sometimes still can’t believe I went.
My mom, my track coaches and a couple of teachers really inspired me along the way. I saw how hard my mom worked, how she always remained steady in her faith, and how as a single parent she always made sure all six of us had everything we needed. I never saw her out of control over anything. She took on the issues and kept trusting in God to get her through. I had a teacher named Mrs. Aldrich who always had encouraging words and helped prepare us students for the future. In my opinion, teachers are like ministers. It’s a calling and when you have it, you have the power to touch so many people and truly leave lasting impressions in their lives.
Describe your educational background and career path. Did you always have an interest in business and government?
Upon graduating from high school, I attended Western Illinois University, where I majored in home economics and was part of the track team. After two years at Western, I was offered a full track and field scholarship to Bradley University, so I transferred to Bradley and completed my bachelor’s degree. I loved the smaller classes and really enjoyed my years there.
After leaving Bradley, I moved to Oklahoma City and took on a job at a bank. I had worked as a teller as a senior in high school, so I picked those skills back up and was eventually promoted to new accounts as a personal banker. I loved my job there and all the people I got to meet as customers. I was at the bank for five years before moving back to Peoria to be closer to my mom.
I was hired at a community bank in Peoria and worked my way to the commercial loan department. But the bank was on the verge of a second buyout, and out of fear of possibly losing my position, I took a job with Illinois Business Financial Services, helping businesses with their loan and financing needs. It was a great job that allowed me to have flexible hours, so I could take my kids to school, go to work, and be off in time to pick them up.
While working at IBFS, we were in the same office with the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois and the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. The EDC had a full-time opening come up, so I applied and got the job. I had the opportunity to work with a variety of businesses managing the revolving loan funds for Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties, as well as the business retention program for the Tri-County Area. After five years with the EDC, I was hired as an economic development specialist with the City of Peoria, where I worked with the City’s revolving loan fund, enterprise zones and their business retention program. When the City got into some budget issues and the Council decided to downsize our department, I lost that job.
Within two weeks I was hired by the City of Chillicothe as their economic development director, and I held that position for seven years before leaving to pursue my bakery business full-time. That decision came after my brother died in his sleep from a heart attack. He used to encourage me to take that step and do what I love full-time—he always believed I would do well. I worked my bakery business full-time for three months before I was appointed by the Peoria County Board to take on the role of Peoria County Clerk. I guess God said, “It’s not time to do your bakery business full-time yet, Rachael.” I had served on the Peoria County Board for nine years prior to that appointment, which came after the death of Steve Sonnemaker. I have always had an interest in business, and the government piece just folded nicely into it.
How did these various positions contribute to the skillset you bring to the Clerk’s office?
My career path has been like a puzzle, as each job somewhat connected to my prior job, taking on more responsibility and challenges as my opportunities grew bigger and bigger. It was my history of working with people, with businesses, with commercial loans and all the paperwork that comes with government loan packages that has given me the skillset I use today as Peoria County Clerk.
That office, as I have always said, is the front line of the County. We are the first office people see when they enter in the main doors and we act as an information station when people are not sure where they are supposed to go in the building. Customer service is key in this office, just as it is in my small business—making people feel welcome, taking care of their needs, and having them leave with a sense of satisfaction. With my nine years on the County Board and experiences working for the City of Peoria and City of Chillicothe, I feel I have a good understanding of city/county operations, and that just makes my duties that much easier to understand and enjoy. All the pieces are coming together.
What are you most proud of in your career, or life in general? What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
I am most proud of being the mom of two beautiful children who taught me a lot along the way. I am proud of being inducted into Bradley University’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1992 and into my high school’s Hall of Fame in 2007—I still hold at least one school record that has not been broken in both places. I am most proud of being the first Black ever elected to the position of Peoria County Clerk in its 195-year existence. I am honored!
Being a Black female on my career path has had its challenges—having to prove I can do the job, having to fit into cultures where most did not look like me, and making the most out of these situations. The beautiful thing about it is all it took was for people to get to know me. Once people got to know me, the trust and comfortability came. My mom used to tell me, “If you treat people the way you want to be treated, things will work out,” and this has proven to be true for me. I have been in situations where I know the people around me did not want me there, but I still treated them with respect and continued to do the job I was hired to do. It’s those types of challenges that make you stronger, and make people realize they need to have an open mind and get to know someone before judging them.
Tell us about your board service and community involvement. What causes are near and dear to you?
I served on the Peoria Public Schools board for three years and the Peoria County Board for nine years. While on the school board, I just wanted to help better our children’s education system in any way that I could. I wanted to be that person parents could reach out to when they felt they did not have a voice in matters concerning their child. On the County Board, I tried to keep up on all the various issues and concerns facing the county, whether it was connected to the jail, nursing home, health department or animal control. I also had (and still have) an interest in making sure our small business owners know what options are out there to help keep their businesses viable.
Over the years I have been a member of the Big Brothers Big Sisters board, Central Illinois Black Expo Committee, East Bluff Community Center board and the Salvation Army Advisory Board. I also have been involved in Junior Achievement and Rotary Club, and I’m currently active with my neighborhood association and Neighborhood Alliance group. At St. Paul Baptist Church, I am the lead servant for a ministry called Food for the Soul, where we serve those in need a dinner once a week at the Salvation Army. I currently sit on the board of the Minority Business Development Center and Illinois Business Financial Services, and I am a member of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Group, a regional group led by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Causes that are near and dear to me, as you can tell, are causes that help people and businesses prosper.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
To not always think you know it all, and to surround yourself with folks who are strong in the areas you are weak so that you work off of each other’s strengths. I listen to the folks who are on the frontline. Having their input on how they see things and how things can be improved is helpful to make sure that when I make a decision about something, it has some legs under it. That decision should be based on things that are happening, not on what I think is or should be happening. As a leader, you have to make sure that you are inclusive and have buy-in from your team. That is the only way you can all move in the same direction, which in the end makes us all successful.
What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
When I took the job as economic development director with the City of Chillicothe. I was working for the City of Peoria when budget issues hit and our whole department was let go. For a minute, I thought my life was over. What was I going to do? I thought maybe that was God’s way of saying that I should do my cake business full-time… but within two weeks of leaving the City of Peoria, I was hired by the City of Chillicothe.
That job in Chillicothe allowed me to grow, both personally and professionally. It tested my leadership abilities. It put me in a town of approximately 6,000, where most did not look like me. It made me really look at myself and say, “You can do this!” It was a huge step, a role I had not played before. I went into it with an open mind and a willing heart and got to know a lot of great people whom I am still friends with today. It added a new piece to my puzzle.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
Everyone does not have your best interest at heart. To see people for who they show you they are, and know that you cannot change them.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Treat people the way you would want to be treated in any situation, and then let people see the God in you!
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Decide what it is you really want to do as a career and go for it. Learn as much as you can about that career. Surround yourself with people who will add value to your life—positive influences. Always present yourself in a professional manner in everything you do. PM