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Welcome Home: 3 Peoria transplants reflect on their first year living in the River City

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Emily Bollinger
Three transplants share their stories about why they chose to live in Peoria.

Making the jump to move to a new place can be intimidating, especially if moving from a different state or country.

Three transplants to the Peoria region recently took the plunge and reflect on their first year living in the River City. They all came from different places, backgrounds, and ultimately chose to settle in Peoria for varying reasons.

Stephen Krecik

Stephen Krecik had the furthest to travel. He and his family were previously living in Indonesia for the past seven years. An appealing job offer, coupled with a desire to move closer to family, brought him to Peoria, although he didn’t have much previous knowledge of the city.

“I think everybody knows… the phrase, ‘Will it play in Peoria’, I think that's about it,” said Krecik. “And the thing about Peoria is it's great. It's got these hills, it's got these lakes and all of these natural areas, these areas that are run by the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the state. There's tons of natural places to see. The area's really intriguing in that way. That's been the first pleasant surprise.”

Krecik moved to the area in June 2021. Coming from a mixed family, diversity was a priority for him, and he was pleasantly surprised to find that there were three other Indonesian families living in his neighborhood.

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Stephen Krecik
Stephen Krecik with his wife Amalia and sons Evan and Jakub

“The neighborhood is quite diverse, which is something we really like…there are Indian families, there are Lebanese families, many different kinds of other people there, they're African Americans, and, you know, 10 different varieties of folks like myself as well. So, it's really fun, a lot of different age categories…in certain parts of the country, maybe that's not as easy. But in Peoria, it's quite easy to live here and come from many different types of backgrounds. That's what we were looking for, and we found it here,” Krecik explained.

He also notes success finding schools that his two sons enjoy, like Richwoods High School and Reservoir Gifted Academy.

“When it came time to look at schools, there are online measuring devices that are out there, people rate schools all the time. We took that with a little bit of a grain of salt. We got to know the teachers and the principals of the schools, and you can see that they're highly motivated, they're highly dedicated people. And that's been really refreshing to come to a school or public school and see this devotion of public service that I grew up with… So that's been something I looked forward to coming back to the United States for, and I've not been disappointed at all,” said Krecik.

Stephen Krecik
Stephen Krecik

Krecik noted he also was surprised by the layout of some of the neighborhoods in the city. He said many look to be dominated by rental units, and some neighborhoods appeared to be economically challenged.

“Here it can really change from one block to the next, and I just find that remarkable. I don't know if that's normal because it's something I haven't seen,”he said, adding he raised concerns regarding safety in the area.

“Compared to other cities in Illinois of similar size, Peoria surely has a lot more violence, a lot more crime and homicides going on, and what's up with that. And if you look at the city, if you drive around a little bit, then you begin to understand that there are parts of the city that have really been hit hard by what had been economic issues, I'm assuming… And so, there are parts of the city that are incredibly successful. And there are parts that aren't,” Krecik said.

Krecik acknowledged he thinks community leaders and representatives in Peoria are aware and working hard to address the violence problem based on what he’s read in newspapers and heard on the radio. He said he looks for those kinds of social and economic efforts to improve the city.

Leslee Dean

Leslee Dean can recognize the struggles that come with raising a family in a new place. She was pregnant when she and her husband decided to move to Peoria, leaving Washington, D.C. behind to buy a house here that they fell in love with. They officially moved to the area in July 2021.

“I have to say it seemed very small coming from bigger places,” said Dean. “We knew that coming into it. It was intentional. We kind of wanted a slower-paced life, and we were looking to start a family… there was like, no traffic, and we can walk through our neighborhood, and there's trees, and it's so quiet… that was kind of our impression here. Like, it's so quiet and peaceful.”

Leslee quickly found her place in the community working as a speech therapist.

“Upon moving here and interviewing with my company, we found out there are a lot of Spanish speakers here, and it was like a huge need that needed to be filled. So, I'm actually the only Spanish-speaking speech therapist that's part of the early intervention in this area. So, that's been really nice for me to be able to use that and kind of make that connection here in Peoria. So, I've really enjoyed that,” Dean said.

In addition to the connections she’s made through her work, she was surprised at the level of connectedness she noticed throughout the community.

“But everyone kind of knows each other and especially in the circles with like, work and people would say, 'Oh, someone in your neighborhood knows this person you work with and they heard you moved there.' And I've never met this person. It's like everyone is kind of connected. Even though it is, you know, a decent-sized city… there's a sense of community that I wasn't expecting. And people kind of know of each other and had heard about me somehow…so that was surprising,” said Dean.

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Leslee Dean
Leslee Dean holding her son

Moving to a new area with a baby on the way can be a challenge in and of itself. For Dean and her husband, health care was a big priority at this point in their lives.

“We knew that the pregnancy was going to be high risk because we had lost a previous baby. And we were really lucky to be able to go to the high-risk pregnancy center here at OSF. And so, they took care of us…the whole journey. And everyone was just like, so supportive at work and our neighbors and just, they would bring us food and like gifts for the baby. And just really kind of we felt taken care of, even though we didn't know these people,” she said.

Having previously lived all over the country, mostly in big cities, Dean felt this friendly experience she had with neighbors and even strangers during her pregnancy and after giving birth was unique to a place like Peoria.

“It's not like that in a bigger city…So I definitely think that the smaller environment gives it a different feel…I feel a little more kind of connected to the community. That's not kind of what we were used to living in a more urban place.

Dean isn’t the only transplant who noticed a friendlier spirit in Peoria compared with other cities.

Melissa Wood

Melissa Wood, who lived in California for the past 40 years, is coming up on her one-year anniversary of moving to the Peoria area.

“What I find is that people will take the time to just hang out and talk, whether it's people that are coming by on the street…when you're out hiking and you meet someone and start talking, people are just more relaxed about talking and speaking about what they're seeing and what they're experiencing and who they are. And it's just, it's a much more relaxed sort of open feeling that I'm feeling here,” she noted.

Wood left California after becoming concerned with the number of wildfires and smoke in the area where she lived. The cost of living here was another reason, as it allowed her the flexibility to work on her art full time. Plus, as an avid hiker, the landscape and trails found in the Peoria area is something that she has fallen in love with.

“The hiking here is phenomenal… The forest preserves, the way that this region has protected their forests is just stunning. Until you're in Forest Park or until you're in Farmdale or until you go to Starved Rock or Matthiessen State Park, you don't know how incredibly different the landscape is here. It’s so diverse, you know, the ravines, the limestone caves, the bluffs… and so our hiking is up and down hills all the time. And that was really surprising to me,” said Wood.

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Melissa Wood
Melissa Wood in California

Wood quickly fell in love with the Peoria area after moving here. But she had to deal with an unfortunate situation soon after her arrival. After bringing her dog to Whitney Veterinary Hospital in Peoria for a dental checkup, it was determined her dog had mouth cancer. Wood and her husband ultimately had to make the tough decision to put their dog down. However, Wood said the exceptional veterinary care in Peoria made the process a bit easier, and she happened to make an unlikely friend in the process.

“This wonderful woman, Jeanette, as well as some of the other techs there who are incredible, our vet Dr. Mike, really held our hands through it and really helped us through it. It was very hard for us. And so, Jeanette was there with us, and I asked for her to be when we had to put her to sleep. We all knew that was coming. And Jeanette really helped us with that,” explained Wood.

Wood said she and Jeanette have since developed a friendship, and that making friends in the Peoria area has been delightfully easy for her, a concern that many transplants have when moving to a new area.

“I've just sort of learned as I've gotten older…if you see someone that you feel like, "Gee, they're kind of someone I'd like to know better,' just ask them out for coffee. Ask them out for lunch. Ask them to go for a walk. And people love that,” said Wood.

Curiosities about Peoria

As Krecik, Dean, and Wood settle into their new lives in Peoria, all of them have some lingering questions and curiosities about their new home. Dean is looking ahead to potential school options.

“We're not really sure what we're going to do yet. It was kind of an issue when we moved in, just wondering about the Peoria public schools, and then I know there's a lot of private schools in the area that people choose just to send their kids to. So, we haven't really made a decision about that yet. I think it's kind of still like, gathering more information and seeing what his needs are. And then I guess trying to kind of figure that out. But yeah, that is an issue that definitely seems very current here,” said Dean.

Krecik and his family are still adjusting to their Midwestern life in America.

“I think maybe the biggest challenge, since I've come back down to the States, is just getting used to the changes and driving habits,” Krecik said.

“It's really strange for me to see people run red lights, stop signs, switch lanes…Our boys have gotten off the school bus and had cars go around even when the sign was deployed. So, we're very careful about that. We've been hoping that this proposal, for example, to put red light cameras on the red lights here passes, and that there gets to be a little bit more discipline on the roads. But other than that, you know, everything works, and everything works well. And people have been very nice.”

Emily Bollinger
Peoria's River Walk

And for Wood, the old buildings and architecture found in Peoria have her attention.

“Some of them look like they've been restored. Some of them don't. It's just such a shame, but some of them I've been surprised actually how many have been renovated beautifully…I've been so interested in seeing different buildings. And I'm so curious as to how, if there's a way to find out, you know more about what these buildings are, and can we go in them?... I'm curious about the riverfront…and all these wonderful, they look like lofts. It looks like people are doing artists' lofts. And yes, wonderful places to live. So, I want to find out more about that. Love to find out about a loft at some point down there.”

While each of these transplants chose to settle in Peoria for different reasons and had different needs, they all agreed they’re happy here and are looking forward to exploring what else the city has to offer.

This story is part of WCBU’s Welcome Home series. You can view all the stories in the series here.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director and host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and WCBU's morning news podcast On Deck.