While riding his bicycle in downtown Manteno, Ill., Sean and Amy Hoffmann’s 3-year-old son, Braden, was stopped by a police officer.
He was “caught” wearing a bike helmet.
And the punishment fit the crime. He was sentenced to take home a number of treats, including ice cream from McDonald’s, and a stuffed toy iguana he named after the arresting officer, Kevin.
For the Hoffmanns, the story is more than just a cute anecdote. It’s a picture of what makes the village of Manteno a true community. It’s the type of thing that wouldn’t necessarily happen anywhere else.
“Our families don’t understand why we like it here,” says Sean, the choir and show choir director at Manteno’s middle school and high school.
But for the Hoffmanns, it’s clear. And they point to plenty of other instances when the village simply made them feel at home.
The most recent example came in September, when torrential thunderstorms halted the village’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. The storm not only destroyed much of the event setup, but it also partially flooded the Hoffmanns’ basement — no simple clean-up.
But when it came time to do the work, some of Sean’s and Amy’s students came with family members to the house to babysit their two sons — the 3-year-old and his 1-year-old brother, Everett — while they tended to the basement.
“When something like that happens here,” Sean says, “it’s guaranteed someone is going to help someone else out.”
The support the Hoffmans have felt has extended beyond help at home. When Sean’s father passed away in 2015, Manteno students and their families traveled the 70 miles to the visitation service in Mt. Prospect, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, to support their teacher.
“And it wasn’t like they all just made a caravan up there,” Sean said. “They came in groups of five, in groups of 15, and they came the entire time. My family saw that and was asking me, ‘What exactly do you do?’”
As a teacher and coach at the high school, Amy sees the types of relationships teachers in Manteno have with their students. It’s not unusual, she says, to see an elementary teacher at a high school game to support an athlete he or she taught in third grade.
Manteno schools have that reputation, and it’s one of the things that attracted the Hoffmanns here. Both from the northwest suburbs, they met at Illinois State University and married in 2011. Out of school, they moved to the south suburb of Park Forest — halfway between Amy’s job at a junior high in Schaumburg and Sean’s in Watseka.
But openings in Manteno brought them to Kankakee County, and after several years of working in the school district but living a short commute away, they bought a house just a stone’s throw from the high school. As of June, their roots are firmly planted in Manteno.
“There was cheaper housing where we were living before,” says Amy, “but we didn’t get what we got here.”
The boys love the parks, including the summer splash pad at the 66-acre Legacy Park. Compared to the suburbs, the pace of life is a bit slower and it’s a little easier to find calm at home.
They’ve also added some new members to their family. Three of the children’s four grandparents have passed, and most of the rest of their extended family is in the suburbs. So Manteno residents Terri Baldwin, who served as an accompanist for Sean’s show choir program, and her husband, Terry, play the role of adopted grandparents.
The best part? The Baldwins live two blocks away, and the boys can walk to their house. It’s a relationship that, like the others, makes Manteno feel more comfortable, more like home.
“Maybe this sounds bad,” Sean says, “but I feel like a real dad now because I feel like we’re in a real place. I always had this vision of having kids and having a family, and I feel like that has come to fruition this year with our move here.”
No one would have blamed Emily and Matt Gentry if they had stayed in California.
Emily spent a good part of her 20s there, attending optometry school at Berkeley. Originally from Oregon, Matt wrestled down the road at Stanford University, where he was training for the Olympics. They had mutual friends in Palo Alto. They got married and enjoyed California for all the reasons everyone seems to enjoy California.
But in what was a return to a familiar place for Emily, the Gentrys chose to put down roots in Manteno, Ill., where they are living, working and raising their four children.
“I never thought I’d come home,” Emily says. “And I never thought I’d be so happy living so close to home.”
Originally, though, the couple thought this would be a temporary stop on a longer journey. After moving to Manteno in 2010, the couple had a five-year plan that was going to culminate with a move back West. Emily was going to train for a time under her father, Marc Fisher, an ophthalmologist in Bourbonnais, and Matt was going to work in Naperville and continue training for the Olympics. She did and he did, and in 2016, they explored an opportunity to move back to Palo Alto.
Instead, Emily and Matt chose to stay. Now, they say they can’t see themselves anywhere else.
One practical reason is simply the cost of living. Northern California includes some of the most expensive places to live in the country. Monthly home and apartment rents in San Francisco, for example, average $3,600, and the median home price is $1.3 million. Demand is so high that residents looking for a cheaper alternative have made Sacramento, some 90 miles away, a new hot spot.
By contrast, the median home price in Kankakee County is under $150,000 — the lowest in the Chicagoland area — and Manteno is about 50 miles from Chicago’s Loop.
Another reason is the opportunity. Emily could have worked as an optometrist in the Bay Area, but starting a practice in such a competitive market would be an uphill climb; and would likely require a significant commute.
Here, Emily drives the family golf cart from home to the office, from one end of town to the other. Manteno has issued permits for about 1,000 carts, and the Gentry cart features, of course, Emily’s business name and logo on the side.
“Believe it or not,” she says, “I have better work-life balance having my own business here than I would have had if I worked for someone else there.”
But not every reason is financial or work-related. In February, Emily and Matt bought a home with a backyard overlooking the 38-acre Manteno Lake. The kids are able to paddleboat and feed the ducks. A trampoline swing hangs from a nearby tree. On one recent day, they fished off the dock for bass and bluegill.
Perhaps the biggest reason they’ve chosen to stay, though, are the relationships they’ve formed. Some of those have developed through Matt’s wrestling clinics and Emily’s optometry practice, where she serves patients of all ages. Others have come through meeting other families with young kids. Still others have come from socializing in the community — sometimes at PJ’s Ice Cream, the popular shop downtown, and at Steam Hollow, a 10-barrel brewhouse and taproom that opened this year.
“Work is what got us here,” Emily says, “but it’s the relationships that have kept us here.”