Christmas at the Village with a Caring Heart

December 1, 2008 - 2:00am -- Living City

Stories from North Riverside, Illinois
At first glance the village of North Riverside, which lies a bit west of Chicago in Cook County Illinois and sports a population of about 6,688, might easily be overlooked. Then, upon reading on the official website about the village’s Neighborhood Services Program, one is introduced to a program that “regularly links neighbors to neighbors” and is known for its “random acts of kindness” that have impacted countless lives by providing comfort, security, peace of mind and an outstretched hand.
Upon closer inspection, and helped by Carol Spale, director of Neighborhood Services Committee (NSC), here’s what I have come to know about this village.
The mayor, Richard Scheck, has his own way of knowing who may be in need of a helping hand. He counts on NSC to let him know about anyone in trouble and to make things happen. Many join in to help including the mayor and Carol themselves, 90 block captains whose volunteering reaches out to all people living in their block, the Recreation Department director, and others.
There is a giving cycle in the many experiences Carol shared. In each case, the recipients of the “helping hand” responded to the sense of caring and attention with some caring of their own. Last year, during the holiday season, a “giving tree” offered the possibility for sharing needs and gifts, for giving and receiving. Here is what happened.
A 50-year-old grandmother, who had custody of her two grandchildren, was facing foreclosure on her townhouse. Carol wrote: “We helped with gift certificates and items from the Giving Tree, Salvation Army emergency money and food collected from our Christmas party. The grandmother was so grateful that she gathered up four boxes of clothes that her two grandchildren had outgrown. These clothes ended up at the local school.”
A lady was to be evicted from her apartment. Carol and the villagers shared items from the Giving Tree, provided food and emergency money. They helped with legal proceedings on the back rent, found another apartment for her, helped pay some rent and even found her a job nearby. The lady was so grateful that she took a bus to the village center to help package cookies for the gift baskets destined for others in need.
An elderly couple in town was in such poor health that their home and property were falling into major disrepair. Neighbors complained but the mayor said to try to follow the “Art of Caring.” The team sprang into action and visited the couple with an eye towards listening and making the couple’s needs their own. The husband asked them to help by raking the leaves. The village did this free of charge. They also prepared plates of food; a good refrigerator was found and the Council on Aging located grant money to help with the renewal of the home. The woman felt cared for by the village and accepted help to clean her house. To express her gratitude, she invited Carol to come over and with tears in her eyes she said: “I want to give something back,” handing her a beautiful fur coat for someone in need. When the mayor heard this, he commented: “The art of caring really works!”
"What is this art of caring?” you might wonder. A number of years ago the mayor was looking for a spark for his new Neighborhood Services Committee (Read "The Village with a Caring Heart" inLiving City, May 2007). Carol responded and suggested that the block captains try to make each block like a family, where no one would feel alone. The mayor liked the idea. To help make this “family” happen, Carol also proposed that the principles of the art of loving as explained by Focolare founder Chiara Lubich be adopted, calling it “The Art of Caring”: 1. Be first to reach out to others; 2. Reach out to everyone; 3. Care concretely; 4. Be one with joys and sorrows.
Carol suggested that at each block captains’ meeting, she would take one of the points and illustrate it by using real-life experiences. As time passed, some of the block captains themselves started sharing in light of the four principles, and the village has developed what could be considered a “culture of caring.”
“Over the years we have been able to see the idea of sharing grow throughout our village,” Carol commented, expressing her amazement “at the explosion of the sharing in town last Christmas.”
One younger new block captain, for example, had no time to shop for the giving tree to help families and individuals, but wanting to do something gave $100. A resident offered 200 little sample bottles of lotions and shampoos that were then given to the local nursing home for the Christmas baskets they prepare for homebound in twenty suburbs. Left over food from Christmas parties was collected and brought to the local home for abused women. Ten bags of baby clothes shared by the village administrator were taken to the local women’s center. Offers of TV-VCRs, furniture and other items were put on the “sharing board” at the Village Commons.
One resident asked for a turkey. The following day the recreation director mentioned she had a turkey to give away! A lady who had many needs, including money to pay her rent, asked for a case-load of Ensure, a nutrition supplement. A couple of days later, a block captain said a person had died and the relatives were looking for someone to take his Ensure.
Just before Christmas, there were more ornaments with listed needs on the giving tree at the village, and no money to cover them. In addition, a couple of families called saying they were unable to pay utility bills and buy food and gifts. The director of recreation was concerned and Carol shared it with the mayor commenting how never before had there been so many requests for help. The following day the mayor and the trustees gave “a big amount of money” from their personal funds to fulfill all the requests.
North Riverside has even extended the Art of Caring to other towns. Carol explained: “I truly believe that the art of loving can transform a town from top to bottom. These four points have created such a sense of family that people even invite relatives to move here. People driving around our town tell me they feel such peace. What touches my heart most is what one resident said: ‘I am so lucky to live in a village with a caring heart.’”