Who could have foreseen this year's huge need in Will County when The Herald-News began its Herald Angels campaign in 1997?
Over the years, loyal subscribers have assisted hundreds of local families in need through this campaign.
Every dollar donated to this campaign goes directly to United Way of Will County, which funds partner programs that helps meet Will County residents' needs for food, shelter, health care and education.
This year, the need is beyond what anyone could have ever imagined – although few will be surprised to hear the need for assistance in Will County is huge.
Some organizations have seen up to a 300% increase in requests from the community for assistance, which is “unprecedented,” according to United Way Interim CEO and President Sarah Oprzedek.
Not only did many households in Will County go from receiving consistent wages to being laid off, they went through an intermediate period of waiting to be approved for benefits.
“That created an immediate impact of, ‘I’m not getting a paycheck, but I still have to pay for food, pay my bills and take care and provide for my family,’” Oprzedek said. “It created this massive need because so many individuals were impacted in Will County…this is definitely a year for the history books, that’s for sure.”
Moreover, according to ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employee) data, 30 percent of the people in will County are just over the poverty line, meaning they make too much for assistance and not enough “to make ends meet,” Oprzedek said.
“They are employed, so working and earning a wage, but it’s not enough money for a basic household budget,” she said.
Many of those families had an average of $400 in the savings at the start of the pandemic she added.
Suddenly people couldn’t afford the most basic of necessities. In addition to food and shelter, people also had no money to buy soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, gloves, hats, coats, facemasks, socks, underwear and even diapers, she said.
“Diapers are another essential need,” Oprzedek said. “One, they’re expensive. Two, if you have an infant or child you can’t have them staying in a soiled diaper. That leads to health issues. Diapers are essential and often hard to come by.”
Because of the pandemic, United Way of Will County had to cancel one of the family support days it co-hosts each year, she said. These events connect individuals in need with service providers so the application process can be completed onsite, Oprzedek said.
A second family support day was held as a drive-thru event at Bolingbrook High School, which drew hundreds of people, she said.
“After 300, they had to start turning people away,” Oprzedek said. “There were no more food boxes, no more hygiene kits and no more [information] packets.”
Will County also saw a “pandemic-related” surge of need for essential items, for the residents and for the agencies that served them. These items included hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, papers towels and cleaning solutions, she said.
The nonprofits had also capacity issues because they no longer had as many volunteers who could serve them, including during the period of sheltering in place, Oprzedek said.
She said United Way helped to ensure agencies had workers and plenty of PPE.
“Thanks to the CARES funding, we ended up being reimbursed,” Oprzedek said. “That was really nice.”
United Way also helped out with housing in those early weeks of the pandemic when social distancing regulations made it hard for local shelters, she said. And United Way helped out to ensure homeless clients were also fed, she added.
“We provided the support to cover the costs to make sure people had a place to stay,” Oprzedek said.
Despite the need, one element about Will County really impresses Oprzedek - the way the community rises to meet that need with a “how can I help out?” attitude, she said.
“Will County is filled with the most kind and generous individuals and businesses,” Oprzedek said
Any amount donated to the Herald-Angels campaign is welcome, helpful and needed. Every dollar goes directly to United Way of Will County, the Herald Angels’ beneficiary for the past few years.
Watch for Herald-Angels ads in the paper over the next month. Just clip out the form and mail it with your donation or donate online at uwill.org.