McHenry County’s truancy officer doesn’t just track absent students. He also feeds the homeless at Christmas.

Tim Dempsey sees through his job ‘how the underprivileged families live,’ so he decided to help

Rob Zerkel and other members of the Wauconda Masonic Lodge #298 package bags of groceries on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, for about 45 McHenry County families, so they will have food for Christmas.

A truancy officer’s job is to be sure students get to school, but the truancy officer for McHenry County takes it a few steps further.

Tim Dempsey also uses his position to identify children who are homeless or at-risk and helps them with clothing, food and other services.

At Christmastime, he steps up his game to make sure these students and their families have a Christmas meal.

People don’t understand how hard [being homeless] is until they are faced with it themselves.”

—  Tim Dempsey, McHenry County truancy officer and homeless liaison

“Parents are trying their best,” said Dempsey who lives in Volo. “It’s difficult. Every little bit helps.”

On Monday night, Dempsey, 45, and about a dozen fellow members of the Wauconda Masonic Lodge bought groceries for 45 families and headed back to the lodge to bag them up.

They spent $2,200, donated through the lodge.

Tim Dempsey and Jim Wojtysiak talks about how they and other members of the Wauconda Masonic Lodge #298 will deliver the bags of groceries on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, to about 45 McHenry County families, so they will have food for Christmas.

The grocery bags, which cost about $50 each, contain a ham, side dishes and dessert, with a little extra to get families through the week. The bags are being delivered this week to schools where administrators helped identify families with the most need.

The families are not told where the food came from, and their names are kept private.

This year’s deliveries include homes and schools in Lake in the Hills, Crystal Lake, Harvard, Marengo, Woodstock, Johnsburg and McHenry.

Ten families live in hotels with limited storage space and no stove or oven. For them, Dempsey said, he arranged for hot meals to be delivered from a restaurant in McHenry. The cost is expected to be about $500.

Dempsey’s job with the McHenry County Regional Office of Education brings him into contact regularly with families in need.

Dempsey’s boss, Regional Superintendent of Education Diana Hartmann, supports his efforts and said what he is doing lets “people know they are cared about in the community.”

As of Dec. 14, there were 498 people identified as homeless in McHenry County. This includes individuals who are actively homeless as well as individuals who are enrolled in housing programs, according to data provided by Joe Davis, community development specialist with McHenry County Homeless Management Information System.

Of the 498 clients, 112 are 18 years old or younger. More than 60 of these youth are actively homeless, Davis said.

However, Dempsey said based on information kept by the school districts, there are between 400 and 500 students ages six to 17 who are registered as homeless.

Still, he said, those numbers are skewed due to inconsistent living arrangements, lack of reporting or because some families choose not to register themselves as homeless.

Additionally, the numbers only reflect school-aged children, not younger siblings, so Dempsey said he knows there are far more homeless children not yet identified.

“I am privy to seeing how the underprivileged families live, crammed into one bedroom apartments or in basements at a friend’s house,” Dempsey said. “From a moral perspective, it is hard to see that.”

Dempsey, originally from Manchester, England, said he didn’t see it growing up, but as an adult he now realizes his family did not have a lot of money, and that his mom “had to spread out the food.”

“I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, but I didn’t know anything about that [at the time],” Dempsey said.

He said his experience is much like the majority of students who are homeless in McHenry County: They are unaware they are in need or homeless because most families are doing the best they can.

He recalled one Christmas delivery last year when he gave a bag of groceries to a single father, who was unemployed, raising his two children. Dempsey recalled the man didn’t say anything; he just “began crying.”

“You don’t know how difficult it is until you don’t have it,” he said. “People don’t understand how hard it is until they are faced with it themselves.”

He added: “No child should be hungry, ever.”

This is the fourth year Dempsey is heading up the effort and the third year it involves donations and help from his lodge.

The first year, Dempsey provided Christmas meals on his own for five families and spent about $250.

But when fellow lodge member Scott Uglinica learned what Dempsey was doing, Uglinica and other lodge members jumped in to help.

Uglinica, 54, recalled saying, “‘Tim, your lodge brothers are here, what do you need?’”

Dempsey said after the lodge stepped his effort “snowballed.”

Some families, Uglinica said, “don’t have anything. A lot of families are living on couches, in hotels, trailers and they don’t have a home. They are bouncing all over the place.”

Since 2016, Uglinica has sold popcorn at various events from a 1928 Ford Model Popcorn Wagon. The wagon, provided through Uglinica’s boss, Jim Seckelmann, owner of the Mulch Center in Volo, is used to raise money for charities in McHenry and Lake counties.

Dempsey’s is now among those charities. The popcorn machine now displays a placard that reads that proceeds are going to the Julia Dempsey Children’s Fund, in honor of Dempsey’s mother, who died last year.

Dempsey said Uglinica’s popcorn sales are a “big help” in covering about half of the cost of the Christmas meals.

Uglinica’s daughter got involved this year by filling about 150 bags with candy to add to the deliveries.

Uglinica said Dempsey does more than help families at Christmas time. He stays in contact with the children and their families throughout the year, helping where he can.

“I know what it is to be hungry,” Uglinica said, “and to be honest with you, I have four kids, Tim has a son, it’s just what we do. We take care of kids.”

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