Sylvia Colin was doing her best to get in the holiday spirit. She wore a headband with a pointy Santa hat, a necklace of Christmas lights and glittery green face mask.
But the holidays are hard, Colin said, because they remind her of loved ones who have died. And in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has added more stress to her household. She lives with her teenage son, who, like her, struggles with depression, and with her 38-year-daughter, who has a seizure disorder. They are all having a tough time being stuck at home.
She would like to visit her parents and siblings who live nearby, she said, but several of them have contracted the virus.
“Who’s going to take care of my kids if I get sick?” said Colin, 58, of Brighton Park, brushing away tears with a gloved finger. “I’ve got to stay strong for my babies.”
So instead, she was trying to focus on the Christmas feast she planned to prepare for her kids – tamales de puerco with beans, a family favorite. Colin finds joy in her cooking. Her children give her hope.
Colin was among the hundreds of people who lined up recently for free holiday food at the outdoor food pantry at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine of Saint Anne in Brighton Park. The food she received at the distribution – fresh produce, canned goods, a turkey and other items – would contribute to her holiday cooking and subsequent meals.
The pantry is a source of nourishment in a difficult time.
“The people here are really nice,” she said. “And the food really helps me out in the kitchen. Whatever they give me, I’m grateful.”
Serving record numbers
Irene Tovalin could never have imagined her once small-scale church food pantry would be feeding as many families as it is today.
Before the pandemic, Our Lady of Fatima hosted a monthly food pantry in the church cafeteria. With donated produce from a local restaurant owner and an assortment of dry goods, volunteers would serve 55 to 60 families each month.
“It was nothing compared to the scale that we have now,” she said.
Now, after partnering with the Food Depository in the spring, the church food pantry serves more than 500 households every week, Tovalin said. Though a majority of the families come from within the Brighton Park community, many come from different communities near and far – from the city’s North Side to the south suburbs of Cook County.
At this week’s holiday food giveaway, the mood was festive as Christmas songs brightly jingled from the sound system. Volunteers bedecked in holiday gear hustled in preparation. A line of idling cars wrapped around the block; another line of people on foot stretched down the street on the other side of the church.
On a white board inside the church, Tovalin keeps a running tally to remind the volunteers of their impact during the pandemic. As of Dec. 12, the pantry had served 14,619 families and 56,070 people.
As she reflected on the impact they’ve been able to make these past several months, Tovalin’s eyes quickly welled up with tears. For the most part, she focuses on the bright side of their work. But there’s no denying the struggles her neighbors are facing, and will continue to face, as a result of the pandemic.
“They’ve expressed anxiety for food insecurity,” Tovalin said. “A lot of people have lost their jobs (and) they have families. They’re stressed and overwhelmed with uncertainty. That brings me to this place every Saturday without hesitation.”
Hopeful for the year ahead
Yan Hong Lei, 55, is one of those visitors who recently lost work. She had been working as a waitress until the restaurant she was working at closed due to the pandemic. For the past few months, Lei has turned to the food pantry for help.
It’s been very difficult, Lei said, but she was optimistic that the new year would bring brighter tidings.
“For them to provide food for us, it is so helpful,” Lei said. “With the vaccine coming, I’m hopeful that things will get back to normal soon.”
Tovalin feels this kind of gratitude every week. But especially during the holidays, she knows that having somewhere to turn for support feels even more special.
“They feel that they’re not alone,” she said. ”Someone’s out there for them.”