For anyone working on social issues, the coronavirus outbreak has been particularly disruptive — how do you continue to help people suffering from illness, poverty or discrimination in the middle of a pandemic? The Herald spoke with representatives from three organizations around Hyde Park trying to navigate new and unfamiliar terrain. Each gave a sense of how their work has shifted, what they’re doing to continue it, and how people who want to lend assistance can be most helpful.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana
Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, a nonprofit with one location near the Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago Medical Center, provides long-term housing for the families of hospitalized children. Because of the outbreak, the charity has stopped letting volunteers, many of them elderly, visit the house by 54th Street and Drexel Avenue.
“Obviously we’re just like everybody else in the country right now, trying to deal with the implications of this virus that’s spreading,” said Lisa Mitchell, vice president of programs and services at the nonprofit. “We rely on our volunteers very deeply — they’re critical to our operations — but in the interest of protecting everyone we had to eliminate our volunteer support.”
Since meals are usually prepared by those volunteers, the charity is instead catering from local restaurants, including Pizza Capri, Medici on 57th and Fung’s Chop Suey. (And, of course, McDonald’s.) But that comes at a significant price: Mitchell estimates that, over the next month, feeding the 162 families living in the nonprofit’s five Chicagoland houses will cost around $95,000. As of Thursday afternoon, she said, they had raised just over $10,000.
To help, the nonprofit is asking people to contribute in one of two ways: by making a donation online, or mailing restaurant gift cards to individual houses. (Mitchell also said that people can drop off items, but should call ahead to schedule pick-ups with a staff member outside the house.)
“We’re so grateful. People have been calling offering emotional support, financial support,” she said. “We can’t wait until this is all just a memory and we can be back to our normal operations.”
Ronald McDonald House, 5444 S. Drexel Ave. 773-324-5437. Donations can be made at rmhccni.org/donate/covid-19-donations/, while gift cards can be mailed directly to the house.
Hyde Park Union Church food pantry
In the basement of the Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., the weekly Saturday food pantry will continue to operate as usual, with small modifications to maintain best social distancing practices.
“We’re making sure we only have ten or fewer volunteers …. We’re going to have pre-packed bags for people. Usually we do a total client choice — like Valois, see your food. We can’t do that right now, but we’ll still have a certain amount of choice, if you don’t want a bagful of dried beans,” said Jan Deckenbach, director of the food pantry.
Deckenbach said that the pantry is accepting “virus-free” financial donations through the church’s website. (In-kind donations are discouraged, both because of the outbreak and because it’s usually cheaper for the pantry to buy food on its own.)
“Quite a bit of the food that we get through the (Greater Chicago Food Depository) is free. But not all of it is free, and if we have a sustained uptick in people coming we will want to make sure we have an adequate food supply,” she said. After Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced last week that Chicago Public Schools would close, Deckenbach said, there was a slight increase in the number of people who came to the food pantry on Saturday.
Deckenbach also expects the pantry to remain open for the foreseeable future: “Food is a vital resource, so we don’t expect whatever (Gov. J.B. Pritzker) says about sheltering in place will apply to us.”
Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave. Donations can be made at hpuc.org/justice.html
Brave Space Alliance food drive
Meanwhile, a new donation drive is taking place at Flood’s Hall. There, Brave Space Alliance (BSA), which provides programming and resources for LGBTQ individuals on the South and West sides, is collecting food, diapers and hygienic products to distribute to people in need.
“We have an amazing executive director who immediately called an emergency staff meeting, and we talked about focusing more on our clients, figuring out what are healthier ways we can still assist them,” said Zahara Barrett, director of development and external relations at BSA.
The drive, which launched last Monday, will continue for the duration of the outbreak. Next week, staff members will begin to group and send out items to the approximately 150 people who have asked to receive donations so far. They'll rely on volunteer support to pick up and drop off the items.
Because of the outbreak, BSA has largely gone remote — one staff member comes into the office each day to collect donations, while many of the organization’s other services are now digital.
“We’ve been shifting a lot of our basic needs. Our mutual aid group, our government assistance program — we’ve shifted all that to be virtual,” said Barrett. “I just want to let people know that they can go to our website if they want to help us. It’s all hands on deck — anyone can help in any way that they can.”
Brave Space Alliance, 1515 E. 52nd Pl. More information about the food drive and how to help at bravespacealliance.org/covid-19