The Town That Literally Wrote the Book on Being Nice

In this small Chicago suburb, being good to your neighbors is a mission everyone takes seriously, starting with the mayor.

Courtesy Carol Spale
You might call this North Riverside’s welcome wagon: its team of “block captains.”

Editor’s Note: North Riverside, Illinois, was selected as one of Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America in 2018Meet the winner, find out how the finalists were selected, and hear from our chief judge, Robin Roberts.

Late one recent night, Carol Spale picked up the phone and heard quiet sobbing on the line. It was her neighbor, an older lady and a widow who had lived on her own across the street for many years.

Spale runs the local “Neighborhood Services Committee,” so she’s used to receiving calls like this. The committee is unique to North Riverside, the small Chicago Suburb where Spale lives. What started as Mayor Richard N. Scheck’s 1992 call for community-building ideas is now a part of the town’s DNA. The committee manages some 90 “block captains,” who oversee each block in town like a family. In this way, a guardian angel looks over every street in North Riverside.

For her neighbor, Spale was the guardian angel. But why was she crying?

As the story goes, Spale called up her neighbor after noticing her garage was open later than usual. When her neighbor finally called back, she was in tears. Spale’s first thought was that she was in trouble, but it turned out to be a lot deeper than that.

“She was crying because my call let her know that someone cares about her,” Spale told Reader’s Digest. “She wanted to tell me how good it feels to know someone cares about her now that she’s alone.”

The primary job of the committee is to foster community between all residents—but it has become so much more. It’s everything from raising money for a neighbor in need, to tying holiday gift bags to everyone’s doorknobs several times a year, to making sure the next generation inherits the most valuable lessons of the village: to live by the golden rule.

Three times a year, the Neighborhood Services Committee has meetings where residents talk about the kind things they’ve done for each other. The speakers are often children, encouraged by their parents to do good—and spread the good word, too. At a recent meeting, one girl, no older than eight, talked about how she made a card for a neighbor she befriended, an older gentleman who had just come back from the hospital with a pacemaker.

“She was like a grandfather for her,” Spale said.

Another youngster noticed bullying going on at her school and gave the victim “warrior” dog tags to protect him from the bigger kids. He now wears them every day.

“The kids were picking on him and she didn’t like that at all,” said Spale.

These acts of kindness are also memorialized in a quarterly newsletter and in a booklet sold on Amazon called “We Can Build Community,” with the proceeds going to locals in need. If good examples aren’t enough, the Neighborhood Services Committee has also put out a 65-page guide on being nice: “Neighbors All: Creating Community One Block at a Time.” It’s filled with specific instructions on how to be kind as well as stories that illustrate them.

The book is filled with tips, like “be the first to reach out,” “share joys and sorrows as if they are your own” and “be concrete in caring.” It shares stories, too, of good neighborly deeds from the past that can act as a guiding light. One resident, a woman from Poland, told her block captain that she was having trouble sorting out the paperwork to get her citizenship. The captain told the committee, who told the mayor, who enlisted the help of her local congressperson, and soon the woman’s paperwork was all in order. One Christmas, a block captain brought a mini Christmas tree to a neighbor who was ill and bedridden. Later that day, the sick man surprised his whole family by asking if they would take him out to see the decorations—something he had said he was too sick to do before.

He passed away a few months later, but the folks in North Riverside still remember his story as an example of how taking a little time out of your day can make a difference in someone’s life.

These days, kindness is still the norm here in North Riverside—after all, they literally wrote the book on it.

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