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Community 'mover' Rick Brooks takes on new challenges one exciting chapter at a time

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Yvonne Boose
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Rick Brooks talking to one of his partners inside his office at the Princeton Amtrak Station

Many Americans feel that democracy is under threat but one northern Illinois retiree is demonstrating social equality by connecting people in his community and in other places.

Rick Brooks is the co-founder ofLittle Free Library, an organization that uses creative ways to store books for the public to take for free. These decorative containers can be spotted all over Princeton and across the world. He is also the founder of Midwest Partners, a local non-profit working in areas like economic development, public arts, youth services and more in his hometown of Princeton, Illinois.

“I’ve lived here in Princeton for about seven years now. I have an office in the Amtrak depot,” Brooks added. “Basically, the whole point of all of this is to make life better for individuals, families, and the community as a whole to enhance the quality of life here in Princeton.”

Brooks had what he calls a “privileged” life. He grew up in Kansas but at 12 years old his parents took him across the world. He attributes this upbringing to shaping the way he views the world.

“When you see the rest of the world, you say, you know, maybe there's something more to life than getting a car and going to the prom and football games,” he explained. “Not there's anything the matter with that, but we really do live in a very complex world, that world that needs people to value the virtues and talents and skills and challenges that everybody faces everywhere.”

Brooks said his wife grew up in Princeton and they always thought this would be a good place for them to settle. They’re in their 70s now and retired from “paid work,” as Brooks puts it, but both he and his wife Sarah are super busy.

“Sarah is an active member of Friends in Council, a Princeton women's organization that has been meeting since the 1880s,” Brooks said.

Brooks said she still teaches piano and is very active in the Northern Illinois town’s art community.

That community was on display as he walked down Main Street showing off the shops and artists who were setting up for the town’s First Fridays, a monthly celebration of art and culture.

“See all these flowerpots,” Brooks said. “They've commissioned an artist to paint them. But you'll see up and down Main Street, that more and more the flowers and the tree plantings and so on are really making the city very attractive, particularly along Main Street.”

Sallee Zearing is the manager at Flour House Bakery & Coffee, 950 N. Main St. She said Brooks comes every day that they are open.

“Rick is all about community building and bringing people together and just celebrating humanity. He's a great asset and this community, for sure,” Zearing said, adding that Brooks is full of ideas.

“We're just lucky to have him here because he's so willing to just you know, get in the mix of things and you know, his time and his energy and he's just very giving,” she said.

After walking down Main Street, we headed back to the Amtrak Station to look at this office — well, basically his office is the Amtrak Station — where he and his partners meet. The small space was filled with books, titles including “Sharing Solutions”, “Social Marketing” and “Changing for Good.” A round table covered with magazines served as the focal point.

Kayla Greenwell was there finishing up her lunch. She’s is a volunteer from Americorps. She said she helps put Brooks' ideas into motion.

“Sometimes it'll be him and I and a few other people just sitting around the table,” Greenwell said, “talking about what we'd like to do or what we'd like to see being done in the community. And then Rick goes, ‘Well, I know someone who knows someone, who knows someone. Let's get this started.’

Rick said he originally thought people would come into the station when they got off the train, but the opposite is what actually happens.

“Now what we find is people don't know when the train is going to arrive here,” Brooks explained. “And they often have a lot of time to spend, sometimes two or three hours waiting for Amtrak to arrive.”

This gives Brooks an opportunity to meet more people as he tells them about the city.

After leaving the station, we hopped into his 2008 Chevy Silverado, one he explains is much bigger than his former Chevy S-10. Brooks said he relies on it to haul things around town, mostly distributing items for one of his nonprofits.

“I'm going to drive you by here and show you one of the things that I just love about Princeton. See this house here,” he said, “Now guess what they have in the front yard.”

A pollinator garden, lights outlining the yard, and a few small windmills were front and center. A tree in the middle of the yard had a sign with a quote from David Orr. But Brooks was trying to point out the box with books in it, one of the Little Free Libraries.

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Yvonne Boose
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A Little Free Library sitting in front of a Princeton home.

His nonprofit, Midwest Partners, has several projects in the works. One is called the Bike Place, an organization that sells and donates bicycles in the community and other places.

“For every bike that we rescue, repair and sell. We give away too, and we've done about 2200 bicycles,” Brooks explained.

But what motivates Brooks to do all that he does? He summed it up during a conversation he had with his partner at The Bike Place, Mark Hamilton.

“I think part of the story here is how people find each other who want to do things for people other than themselves,” Brooks explained.

And Hamilton agrees.

“You know, that's why we do it,” Hamilton said. “So I mean, you know, we're not in it to make a retirement fund. We just do it, because there's a need.”

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Stories of how people in cities, towns, regions across the country are contributing to their communities … uniting them. With all the talk of democracy under threat, America Amplified, WNIJ and public media stations across the nation wanted to see what was working.

America Amplified is a CPB-funded initiative to support community engaged journalism in public media.

Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.