Paying it Forward and Helping Others in a Time of Need

Shari Haefner, RPBG Director

Responding to the intense need brought on by the COVID-19 emergency, Rogers Park Builders Group recently donated $5,000 to Northside Community Resources (NCR) to help some of the most vulnerable people in our community. This donation was made under the direction of Carla Price and the Finance Committee. These funds were delivered on March 29th. (RPBG subsequently contributed an additional $3,000 to NCR with individual members contributing an additional $4,000... and counting!)

For those of you not familiar with this amazing organization, NCR is a Rogers Park-based non-profit that runs a variety of programs serving the neediest citizens of the Rogers Park community. An important focus of NCR is affordable housing. The NCR Board of Directors includes RPBG Directors Tom and Sarah Lisy who have long been active with NCR and who have supported it over the years.

The $5,000 gift was administered by NCR’s Multicultural Resource Program. It was used to help six families – 18 people in all. The recipients came from Iran, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. These beneficiaries included three single moms and two people with severe disabilities. All six families live in Rogers Park and were directly affected by the COVID-19 emergency. Individual cash gifts ranged from $550 to $1,000.

One of the goals of NRC is “to improve the well-being and aid the self-sufficiency of immigrant communities” in Chicago. Aga Kuzmierz, Director of NCR’s Multicultural Resource Program, explains that she is not a social worker. Instead, she and her colleagues work to help refugees, immigrants and asylees become independent by connecting them with resources and programs that can help them become self-sufficient. Sometimes the most valuable resource is simply providing information. She explains that most of these families arrive here with few resources and limited knowledge of how things work in their new country. Many do not even speak the language. Aga and her team are there to help, translating and interpreting in five different languages.

Aga and her team get involved in all aspects of people’s lives. This can include helping kids enroll in school, apply to college and setting them up with school counselors. Her team assists clients with job applications, resume writing, practicing for interviews, getting work permits, finding cars and getting driver’s licenses. NCR’s subsidiary, Northside Community Development Corporation (NDCC), provides such additional services as first-time homebuyer counseling, financial literacy and more. If they don’t have a program available, they will refer clients to other nonprofits who can help.

Aside from occasional fundraisers, NCR only has a few methods for receiving donations, including PayPal and direct donations by check. The first order of business upon receiving the RPBG gift was figuring out how to put the money to best use. NCR did this by identifying families with the most dire needs. Aga explains that routine items like food and clothing are relatively easy to procure. Pantries, churches and other social service providers offer food, regardless of the recipient’s eligibility for food stamps. In March alone, Aga helped around 70 clients file for unemployment, obtain stimulus checks and food stamps, and enroll in Medicare, TANF or other health services.

But NCR wanted to use the RPBG gift to help people for whom these other resources were either not available, or not sufficient, to sustain them through these extraordinary times. The six families she selected were at particular risk of eviction due to non-payment of rent. They also had specific needs for baby formula, medicines, vitamins and other dietary supplements related to health issues that could not be easily obtained through other sources. Here are a few examples of who this money helped.

There is the single mom and her two high school-aged daughters who first arrived in the United States two years ago. The mom got a job as a hotel housekeeper, working long hours to pay rent and take care of her kids. One day while at work, she collapsed. She subsequently discovered that she suffered from a host of grave conditions which left her physically impaired and unable to work. As her health declined, both daughters went to work to provide for the family while attending high school full-time. With the onset of the COVID-19 emergency, both daughters lost their jobs.

Then there is the family of four with a teenager who has cancer. The father worked in construction and landscaping but lost his job. Because he is undocumented, he cannot qualify for social security or stimulus relief, despite paying taxes through ITIN. Having a child with cancer requires special care and medications.

There is also a young couple with a small child. The father was the only one with a job until he suffered a heart attack six months ago. His doctor told him not to work, but he did anyway, needing to provide for his family. He had another episode and is again out of work. He applied for disability but was denied.

Alderwoman Hadden referred a family of three to NCR who were unable to obtain public assistance due to their immigration status after both parents lost their jobs.

In all these cases, the RPBG gift provided a life-line to families who are, literally, struggling to survive and have nowhere else to turn. What happens after their small gifts are used up is anyone’s guess.

Despite all this hardship, Aga says that many of her clients are not only grateful for the help but feel an obligation to pay it back. These are good people trying to build better lives for themselves and their families. They have great personal pride and resist accepting charity. Aga understands. She, too, is an immigrant. So Aga tells her clients to “pay it forward” and to help others whenever they can. And they do.

Many NCR clients are not able to contribute money to people in need. But they manage to find other ways to help. Two NCR clients started cooking together; one was a victim of domestic violence, so the two women would regularly check in on each other. Another group of women started sewing together at Rogers Park United Church, making hats and scarves to give to shelters.

There are so many compelling stories. There is so much need. If you have been inspired by these stories and would like to donate in this special time of need, checks may be sent directly to NCR or RPBG. Any money sent to RPBG will be re-directed to NCR. One-hundred percent of your contribution will go to other families whose needs are just as great as those we have already helped. These are desperate times. A little money will go a long way.

Tax deductible checks may be sent directly to NCR (in memo, write “Multicultural Initiative”) at 1530 W. Morse, Chicago, IL 60626, or send electronically at NCR’s website or send through the RPBG (non tax deductible)