Rick Heiser, center, speaks to Illinois State scholarship recipients at a reception this week.
When Rick Heiser ’75 gives someone a bike, they’re getting more than just a couple tires, two pedals and handlebars. They’re getting a ride to work, a way to buy groceries, or a way to make friends.
Heiser is the lead volunteer for the annual “Walk In, Bike Out” bicycle repair and giveaway project on Bloomington’s west side, part of Global Youth Service Day every April. Heiser’s team of more than 15 bike mechanics and other volunteers spend 10 weeks ahead of time breathing new life into mostly abandoned bikes. At the third annual giveaway last week, Heiser’s team gave away around 150 bikes.
“Bikes are an entry point for socialization,” Heiser told STATEside.
For that project and more, Heiser is the 2013 recipient of the Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize, awarded by Illinois State’s Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies program. Heiser’s legacy of community service stretches back nearly 40 years in the Twin Cities, specifically on Bloomington’s west side, where he is one of the most visible leaders on a multiyear revitalization project.
Heiser grew up in Washington, Illinois, and has lived in Bloomington-Normal since 1974. He graduated with a degree in elementary education from Illinois State but spent most of his career working with disabled adults, retiring in September as a case manager for Central Illinois Service Access, which serves as a liaison between the state and local agencies for a nine-county area.
He is perhaps best-known locally for his community service, most recently as a board member of the West Bloomington Revitalization Project, which participates in Global Youth Service Day. Heiser and other volunteers had previously done monthly bike repairs as part of local youth outreach, but three years ago they turned the program into Walk In, Bike Out, which grows each year.
Just like the recipients, the volunteers are all ages too, Heiser said, from experienced mechanics to kids who help wash the bikes. At a reception for Heiser on Monday at Illinois State’s Alumni Center, volunteer Julian Westerhout recalled the “sheer joy” on a 5-year-old’s face when she received her bike, and the impact the giveaway had on a man who needed to get to work after the buses stopping running.
“Rick is the driving force behind it,” said Westerhout, also an instructional assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Government. “He personifies commitment to community and individual empowerment.”
Heiser’s community service traces back to his parents, who he says taught him to “embrace the larger world.” That “think globally, act locally” mantra was stoked even further at Illinois State, where he and his wife, Susan Heiser ’79, lived for four years in the melting pot that was Cardinal Court in the mid-1970s.
The Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize, now in its third year, is named for Joseph L. Grabill and Gerlof D. Homan, emeritus professors in the Department of History and founders of the Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies program. The prize, whose recipient is chosen by a four-person committee, honors a Twin City resident for peacemaking, leadership, initiative, activism, and inspiration.
The peace prize includes a plaque and a donation to a scholarship or program chosen by the winner. Heiser chose to support a scholarship for Department of Special Education students.
It’s a “humbling” honor for a community servant who prefers to work under the radar, Heiser said. The prize carries special meaning because of its connection to Grabill and Homan, with whom Heiser has worked on local projects over the years. A vibrant community needs people who give back, he says.
“It really has broad implications, well beyond giving away a few bikes,” Heiser said.
Grabill and Homan were both at Monday’s reception, when Heiser earned a standing ovation.
“Rick has a very, very strong track record of leadership, and a lifelong commitment to community service,” said Noha Shawki, co-director of the Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies program and also an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Government.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.