Like many small communities, Cambridge, Illinois suffers from Same Ten People Syndrome. When there’s a project to undertake in the village of 2,100, or a board position to fill, the same small handful of dedicated residents tends to show up. The result: Volunteers get burnout. Projects slow down.
Before the pandemic, village administrator Steven Brown and village board member John Taylor were creating a plan to engage more residents, “because we realize, there’s only so much that we could do as far as the village employees and the council and there were many voices not being heard,” explains Taylor. “To really make a bigger impact, we needed to have more community buy in, and more participation from the community.”
Cambridge’s main industry has long been agriculture, augmented by employment at the schools, the county courthouse, and a few manufacturers. But more and more residents have been treating Cambridge like a bedroom community for the nearby Quad Cities (comprised of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois), 35 minutes to the northwest. “I’d say the larger number of our citizens commute,” acknowledges Brown. That makes it especially hard to engage them in community projects.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, plans for a civic organization were put on hold. Then in 2021 Taylor learned about Community Heart & Soul’s seed grants. Several years earlier, Taylor had signed up for the organization’s mailing list after watching Community Heart & Soul projects unfold in nearby Galesburg and Mercer County, Illinois. When he received an email about the seed grant program, “I was like, ‘This fits exactly what we’re trying to do, but it’s actually better because there’s already a framework in place, so we’re not having to try to create our own method of doing this. We can benefit from the work that others have already done, and learn from that.”
With the enthusiastic approval of the village board, including an offer of matching funds, Taylor and Brown worked together to write a proposal. In spring 2021, they got word that Cambridge, Illinois, had won a grant. Mike Wignall, a recently retired accountant serving on the village board, volunteered to take the lead as Heart & Soul coordinator. “I think it fills a hole for me, so I’m pleased to do it,” he says. “And I feel like it’s benefiting my community. So I think it’s a win-win thing.”
Legend has it that the Lone Ranger—or at least the real-life man who inspired the books and TV show about the daring Texas Ranger—was born in or near Cambridge, Illinois. These days, a “Lone Ranger” mentality is exactly what Cambridge is trying to avoid. Early meetings have recruited more than a dozen volunteers, including the mayor; a teacher, counselor, and principal from the Cambridge school system; the Methodist pastor and his wife; retirees and business owners. Everyone is anxious to begin Phase 2 of gathering stories. “There are people on this team that are just anxious to get out there and meet the community,” says Wignall. “It’s hard to hold them back.”
Community members are rightly proud of Cambridge’s recent accomplishments, including rehabilitated downtown buildings, a new bandshell for events, upgraded baseball diamonds at the park, and new businesses. “We’ve really made strides to make it look appealing and nice and have things to offer,” explains Brown, “but obviously we want to keep it rolling and have more.” Community Heart & Soul, he believes, will keep the village moving ahead.
Want to bring Community Heart & Soul to your town? Apply for a $10,000 Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant to get started. Learn more at: www.communityheartandsoul.org/seed-grants
By: Melody Warnick
Freelance writer Melody Warnick’s book This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are is a practical guide to loving the place where you live that’s been featured in the New York Times, Time magazine, Fast Company, Psychology Today, and others.