RANTOUL — It's been 40 years since village leaders agreed to a three-month experiment.
During the summer of 1971, the Rantoul Village Board agreed to pay a full-time person to work at a new referral agency for local and area residents needing help.
The agency was to help fill the gap because of an almost total lack of accessible social, welfare and mental health services in the village. After the test period, leaders determined that the agency was worthwhile, and Community Service Center was born.
Four decades and several home locations later, CSC continues to serve the area.
The center is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Almost 100 persons turned out for a recent dinner at Hardy's Reindeer Ranch to mark the occasion.
"I was very pleased with the turnout," said Andy Kulczycki, the agency's fifth and longest-serving executive director with more than 25 years service. "We thought we'd get 50 to 60 people. It says something for the support from the community."
The dinner was held to thank the donors and volunteers who have helped the center help others.
The idea to start the center dawned in the fall of 1970 when a group of residents known as the Human Relations Group, operating under the leadership of the Rev. Lambert of Bethany Park Christian Church, began to meet. The group was formed by the Greater Rantoul Area Ministerial Association.
The group had already formed a food bank sponsored by the youth group of the church and a clothing center sponsored by Church Women United.
The group believed there were two problem areas that needed to be addressed because the lack of social, welfare and mental health services:
— Most Rantoul residents were unaware of the services available to them.
— And it was necessary to travel to Champaign-Urbana to receive most of the needed services.
A total of 125 people were helped during the three-month trial period as Rantoul United Methodist Church donated office space. Eleven agencies used the facilities during the time for client interviews, telephone contacts and office work.
According to Marilyn Dewey, the center's first executive director, the name of the center was changed to Rantoul Referral Service in November 1971 because many people confused it with the Rantoul Civic Center. Ironically, it is now housed in what used to be the civic center.
The name was later changed back to Community Service Center.
Kulczycki said friends thought he was crazy to take the position because it had just been announced that Chanute Air Force Base would be closing in a few years.
But Kulczycki said he had always liked the community — having gotten to know it while taking college classes on base.
"The idea of running a small agency like that appealed to me," he said.
He came on board in February 1989.
Kulczycki earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Illinois and a master's degree in community counseling from Eastern Illinois University, which offered classes on base.
"The first thing that really impressed me when I came onboard was the proactive efforts by community leaders to deal with the base closure," he said.
The demographic changes in the community have been quite striking in the years since: the loss of population and the influx of cheap housing.
"At the same time the industrial sector helped carry this community, so there were more blue-collar jobs opening up," Kulczycki said. "The large housing projects in Chicago were closing, so we saw an influx of people moving in from Chicago and Kankakee (for housing and jobs)."
That resulted in an increase in crime and drug activity.
With the loss of the base in 1993 came the loss of a significant volunteer sector. There had always been a member of the military on the center's board of directors.
"We could always call on those people to help out," Kulczycki said.
Another major change was the influx of migrant workers as seed corn companies began having trouble getting young workers to detassel corn.
"The first year migrants were housed in the community, there were rumors about gypsies running around breaking windows in houses," Kulczycki said, noting that the rumors were unfounded. "We had Spanish-speaking people seeking help. We didn't have anyone proficient in Spanish. It took awhile to link up to Public Aid, and they had someone who spoke Spanish."
Kulczycki said his experience with the migrants is "they are hard-working people and they don't ask for help unless they need it."
The center has been a major lifeline for many in need — even more so as the economy went south.
"We've seen people who never thought they'd be coming in and asking for help, but (they said) here's my story, and each story was a little different," Kulczycki said.
The lack of work, the higher cost of gasoline and the cost of groceries added up, and "people who hadn't been hurting in the past were experiencing poverty."
The food pantry is one of the major programs sponsored by the center.
Kulczycki said he is seeing "a little bit" of improvement in the number of people needing food from the pantry. The total reached 500 households a month about a year ago.
Besides the food pantry, one of the center's major services continues to be information and referral.
"If someone calls and wants to get services for a particular situation ... we connect them with the appropriate agency that provides those services," the executive director said. "The complement to that is having office space (for many of those agencies that are located in Champaign-Urbana)."