Food pantries, social service agencies adapt to new reality

As stay-at-home persists, providing services is ever challenging

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By Jackie Pisano

Contributing Reporter

With last weekend marking two weeks since Illinoisans have been under a statewide executive stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic, life as we know it has been radically altered.

Working from home, taking a temporary job to pay the bills, kids attending virtual classes at the kitchen table, wiping down every surface in sight and wearing face masks in public have all become our new normal. 

But for some of the area's most vulnerable residents -- including seniors, the disabled, those with special needs and grappling with food insecurity -- shutdowns and new health guidelines bring their own unique set of challenges.

Several of the community services agencies throughout the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark coverage area have moved quickly to adapt to the current state of affairs for those who need it most.

Food pantries

Now in its 40th year, the Holy Guardian Angels Parish Food Pantry remains faithful in its mission of feeding not just parishioners in need, but also those not members of the faith community. 

The food pantry — which operates solely from donations by parishioners, area churches and community residents — receives food every Monday morning and distributes the food throughout the day, providing emergency meals and supplemental food to everyone from children to seniors. 

Along with nonperishable staples, the pantry also strives to provide recipients with as much fresh produce as possible. 

In order to pick up food and avoid pantry crowds, individuals must call ahead and schedule an appointment for pickup within a 15-minute window. While the small pantry is typically operated by a staff of 10-12 regular volunteers, right now, they are operating with four volunteers at a time. 

Aida Gatch, pastoral care director with Holy Guardian Angels Parish, foresees a problem with a possible shortage of food because of the projected growth in clientele as many locals are facing tighter household budgets from losing jobs.

"The work is harder because there's less people, but it's OK because we have control of who's coming in at what time," she said. 

However, Gatch adds she is "overwhelmed" with the outpouring of love from the community, with many offering food and monetary donations.

"My heart is just so full of how much people are helping and thinking of us at this time," she said. 

Additionally, the parish's Medical Lending Closet remains open by appointment, providing locals with donated medical equipment including walkers, canes, wheelchairs and commodes. Those in need of medical equipment must call ahead for availability and to schedule a time for pickup. 

The food pantry, located at 9300 W. 47th St. in Brookfield, is open Mondays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The medical lending closet, located at 4008 Prairie Ave. in Brookfield, is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 708-295-7336 or email foodpantry@stbarbarabrookfield.org for more.

Riverside Township food pantry assists low-income residents throughout the township and those just struggling to keep food on the table during this time.

"I want people to know that they never have to go hungry," said Vera Wilt, township supervisor. "We're still here for you and we will serve you in a safe manner using social distancing."

Township residents are eligible to visit the food pantry once a month. But, to maintain social distancing, staff are providing residents with two pre-packaged tote bags of food (about 20 pounds of food per bag). The pre-packed bags include a balance of nonperishable foods, including canned fruits and vegetables, pastas, sauces, peanut butter, soups, beans and cereals.

Food supplied at the pantry continues to come from the township's budget, private donations and regular donors. Organizers of Hauser Junior High School's food drive stopped by the township office on April 2, delivering items which the pantry was running low on. 

To receive food from the pantry, Riverside Township requires an ID showing proof of residency within the township.

To maintain minimal person-to-person contact, the township is asking residents to call the Township office one hour in advance to schedule a time for pickup. 

Additionally, the Township has a small roster of volunteers on hand to deliver food to residents who are unable to leave their homes or do not have reliable transportation for pickup. 

The food pantry is located at Riverside Township's office at Riverside Town Hall, 27 Riverside Road, Riverside. Pantry hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Friday. For questions and to schedule a pickup or delivery, call 708-442-4400. 

Part of Faith Lutheran Church in Brookfield since December 2015, the Share Food Share Love Food Pantry is continuing to provide an essential service to the community at large in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

The pantry, which serves residents of Brookfield, Hodgkins, LaGrange Park, Lyons, McCook, North Riverside and Riverside, is inviting people to pick up pre-packaged bags of food curbside, instead of people coming in to "shop." 

To maintain social distancing, volunteers at the pantry select food for recipients, resulting in the distribution of three to four big paper grocery bags for each family.

People may only visit the food pantry once a month. Additionally, the pantry is also able to distribute fresh milk, eggs, bread, meat and produce as provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. 

Clients are asked to park their vehicles behind the church or on the street and wait for a pantry volunteer to serve them. All the pantry is asking from recipients is a name and residential information. 

Normally, the pantry, which serves around 180 families a month, is serviced by 80 regular volunteers. But, to avoid crowding, the pantry is keeping the number of volunteers around 10 each session. 

"During times like this, it's really important for us to think outside of just ourselves," said Linnie Dumas, one of the pantry's managers. "Eating is not a luxury, it's a necessity. When people who have never had to come to a food pantry before are faced with the decision, it's really important to us to be able to be there and help them out. It's our mission.

Located at Faith Lutheran Church, 3801 Madison Ave., the pantry is open for pickup from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays, with families choosing which day to come. 

For more information or to donate money, call 630-347-5390 or visit the Share Food Share Love website. 

Social services

During the statewide stay-at-home order, Community Support Services (CSS), the Brookfield/Cicero nonprofit serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has been mandated to close its two day programs and reallocate many of its staff to service those living in its eight group homes, including two in Brookfield and two in Lyons.

According to Michelle Jimenez, vice president of marketing and development, CSS has not faced any emergency needs for medical supplies or food, but is offering residents an opportunity to help by donating relief items, including: 

Safety and sanitary items (toilet paper, paper towels, antibacterial hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and N95 masks); items to help with programming (art supplies, easy puzzles and board games, card games, DVDs, baking supplies); gift cards for food delivery from local restaurants; and cash gifts for meals.

For safety purposes, in-kind donations are being accepted by appointment only. To schedule a drop-off appointment weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., call 708-354-4547. More information on donations can be found on CSS' website.

Jimenez says that for a number of group home residents, the quarantine is bringing up challenging conversations of safety and security. 

"For some residents it's hard, because they don't quite comprehend why this is happening and why they can't do things they could normally do," she said. 

Jimenez adds that local oversight, including from the mental health commissions at Lyons Township and Proviso Township, have helped CSS remain flexible with due dates of reports and other government-mandated measures providing the current environment. 

CEO Diana Farina White said she wants to reassure the community at large that CSS remains dedicated to keeping both its residents and staff as healthy and supported as possible. 

"We're trying to be creative with little resources on how we can make sure the residents and staff are safe," she said. 

UCP Seguin, the nonprofit for individuals with disabilities which services individuals across the Riverside/Brookfield area at its main Cicero location and in group homes throughout the area, is facing its own set of challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. 

As ordered by the State of Illinois, all day programs overseen by UCP Seguin are closed through the beginning of May. Therefore, many of the organization's day staff have been dispatched to provide additional care throughout the 34 group homes in the area. 

Each group home is covered by a shift-exchange basis -- something which, according to Joe Mengoni, vice president of adult residential and clinical services (and a North Riverside village trustee), is becoming challenging every day. 

"Some workers are calling off because of fear of leaving home or needing to take care of their own families," Mengoni said. "We're looking at maybe where we can plug in people who can stay in those homes for a two-week period of time, or the remainder of this quarantine." 

According to Mengoni, UCP Seguin has had to raise wages for direct care staff workers to encourage people to come to work, made more difficult by the fact that state-supported agencies like UCP Seguin are not receiving the money they regularly do. 

Mengoni adds that the usage of personal protective equipment, like face masks and gloves, is "going through the roof." Equipment is being used constantly in the group homes, and the normal flow of supplies are not coming in and instead being redirected to hospitals and emergency centers treating patients with COVID-19. 

"We're trying to do the best we can," he said. "Let's stick together and hopefully, we'll all get through this. It's a challenging time."

To help compensate staffers, secure protective gear and medical supplies, UCP Seguin as created a special COVID-19 emergency fund. To help donate goods or funds, visit their website.

Senior services

PeopleCare, the Riverside nonprofit which has spent the past 30 years supporting senior citizens and those homebound throughout Brookfield, North Riverside, Riverside and parts of LaGrange Park and Lyons, typically provides services including transportation, shopping, visitation and caregiver support. 

But during this time of social distancing and closures of places like banks and hair salons, PeopleCare has shifted its focus to providing transportation to only essential medical appointments (like dialysis) and doing weekly grocery shopping trips for seniors who do not have reliable transportation or family around to help.

Volunteers, who typically do door-to-door grocery service with seniors, have shifted to taking grocery lists from its seniors and doing the shopping for them, placing groceries outside their doors and calling them from the car to tell them their groceries have arrived. 

Seniors are being asked to leave cash or a check for their groceries for drivers, or call grocery stores to place orders and pay over the phone. 

The volunteers come from a small roster, rotating between delivering groceries and medications and transporting for necessary medical appointments

Additionally, office staff are contacting regular clients and doing wellness checks. 

According to Executive Director Judy Mantel, PeopleCare has about 355 active seniors in its system, with 30 percent of those living in area senior homes with their own set of dedicated services. Mantel says about 40 clients a week are receiving grocery delivery. 

"At PeopleCare, we take things very personally and we often times refer to our seniors as 'our seniors' because we get really protective of them," she said. "During this time, we know it's very scary, and that's why we're reaching out and making calls because even though a lot of people may be talking regularly with family, when you can talk with someone else, it's more reassuring."

For information on PeopleCare, call 708-442-1223 or visit the PeopleCare website. 

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