Bruce Mayor still experiences some lingering symptoms from his bout with COVID-19 at the end of April.
Mayor, 73, continues to deal with fatigue, and his voice becomes hoarse every once and a while.
After contracting the virus that has spurred a global pandemic, Mayor and his wife were sent to different hospitals, separating them for several weeks. He summed up his experience with a warning to others: “You do not want this disease.”
However, Mayor and his wife still considers themselves lucky. They recovered. They survived.
“Every night when the numbers go up on the screen, we look at each other and say, ‘Two of those numbers out there are ours,’” he said. “It’s something that’ll be forever in the back of your mind that you’re the lucky ones that made it. Not in the other group that didn’t make it.”
Despite these personal struggles over the past few months, Mayor said he still couldn’t wait to return to his regular volunteer shift at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital food pantry. The U.S. Marines veteran served from 1966 to 1970, including overseas in Vietnam. And after he returned home to the Chicago suburbs, he also volunteered on various suburban fire departments for nearly 20 years.
Helping others is something that Mayor feels is ingrained in him, he said. Providing food to fellow veterans in need is one way to do that.
“There isn’t a one that isn’t appreciative,” he said of those they serve.
‘We realized we needed to stay open’
The Hines VA Medical Center, a sprawling 150-acre healthcare campus serving vets from across the Midwest, has been a Food Depository partner since 2014. Like most food pantries across Cook County, Hines’ operates much differently than it did before the pandemic. Instead of the veterans lining up in the hospital auditorium and making selections from tables of food, they either drive or walk up to a table inside the building.
Volunteers like Mayor load boxes of groceries into cars or hand them to people who go through the hospital’s COVID-19 checkpoint and come inside.
“What they give you, the amount of food, I can make meals for a week,” said William Fung, a Marines veteran from Chicago’s Northwest Side who was one of the first in the drive-up line on a chilly October morning. Fung, 72, receives monthly Social Security benefits, he said, but it can still be difficult to make ends meet.
Throughout the pandemic, Hines’ pantry has continued to serve around 100 households every week. Its guests not only include local veterans, but also those from across Illinois and neighboring states coming in for treatment, according to Kerry Thomas, Hines social worker and food pantry coordinator.
Even in the early months of the pandemic, as the hospital moved largely to virtual appointments, people still visited the facility specifically for the food pantry.
“That’s when we realized we really needed to stay open,” she said.
‘You can save a little money here and there’
Joe and Sharon Monari met during their time in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s. They were both stationed in Presidio, California, and Sharon worked in the building next door to him, Joe recalled.
“She didn’t like me,” he joked, getting a laugh from Sharon. “Still doesn’t.”
The couple, now married for 48 years, moved to Joe’s hometown of Justice together, where they still live today. They raised four kids and worked for a local factory. They now also have eight grandkids.
Both have faced different forms of cancer, leaving them unable to work. The food assistance, they said, has cut down on their food bill. They use the different kinds of meat, potatoes, eggs, fruits, vegetables and whatever else is available when they come. They also enjoy caring for their four youngest grandchildren on the weekends whenever possible.
“It helps a lot,” said Joe, 69. “You can save a little money here and there.”
Beyond the pantry, they also expressed their immense gratitude for Hines’ healthcare services. Without the V.A., they would have lost everything – their house, their cars – trying to manage.
“It’s been a godsend for us,” said Joe. “If it wasn’t for the V.A., we would’ve been in real trouble.”
For pantry coordinator Thomas, prior to the pandemic, there was a clear sense of community that existed among the veterans as they came through the pantry. While it takes a different form nowadays, she says it’s comforting to see that camaraderie is still alive. Even though the veterans aren’t seeing each other face-to-face, they are still asking about one another and asking staff to check in with those they knew from the pantry.
Amid this crisis, she said, being able to connect with veterans and help them put food on their tables has been a source of pride for Hines.
“During a time when you feel so helpless and scared and unknown of what’s going on, this is one thing we had control of and that we could do something to help people,” she said.