If a neighborhood’s wealth can be estimated by the number of landscaping trucks parked on the roads, then my street is very well-off. Most days this fall it was hard to negotiate a drivable path around all of the service vehicles, and the related noise has been deafening.
My husband reminds me that we jumped more than one culture when we moved from Cambridge to here, one of the suburbs on Chicago’s North Shore. We went from East Coast to Midwest. We went from city to suburb. We went from mixed income to affluent. We went from stratified ages and family groups to single-family homes with more traditional family structures.
All of the habits and mannerisms of this new culture landed on me in the form of intense sticker shock. I began to look for a part-time job in order to try to gain a little control over what felt like a losing battle with unpredictable expenses, but I was heartedly disappointed to lose out on a few jobs I might have genuinely enjoyed (bookseller, library aide). In the end, the one that took me, no questions asked, was the grocery store. After a few weeks of picking items for online orders, I actually began to enjoy the work, until a union rep came along five weeks in, demanding a portion of my paycheck and sincerely but firmly explaining that this was nonnegotiable.
I left my position at the end of the week, not having expected to pay the machine in order to keep a low-paying job, but before I did that, I got to know some of my coworkers. Coworkers like the Ukrainian woman and her refugee daughter searching for affordable preschool, the grandmother caring for her cancer-suffering boyfriend while also babysitting her grandkids, and the teenager who didn’t seem to have any plan for college.
When the Ukrainian grandmother approached me about preschools, I had to admit that I was unfamiliar with the area, but I went home that night determined to bring her an answer that would help her situation. I called the Village Hall and spoke with a social worker. I contacted someone at the local Head Start program. I spoke with the public school and the park district about their more affordable options. All of these options had multiple hoops to jump through. Nothing was straightforward. And everything had a waitlist. I compiled all of this information onto a document and presented it to my coworker, hoping something in there would prove fruitful for her family and wishing there was more I could do.
Recently, our church gathered on a Saturday morning to pack 1,440 Thanksgiving dinners for families in need around Chicago. The congregation had already spent weeks raising the funds to purchase all of the food and supplies. My kids had memorized Bible verses to “earn cans” that would be donated to the event. Behind the scenes, connections were being made and nurtured with the groups who would receive the dinners.
Then, on the big day, approximately 300 volunteers, my kids and I included, showed up in the sanctuary, first to worship in song and then to hear from the 13 ministries and organizations who had requested the food baskets and would carry out their distribution, organizations like:
West Deerfield Township Food Pantry
Youth Services Glenview / Northbrook
Good News Bible Church
Westside Ministers Coalition
CASA Lake County
Family Empowerment Center of Chicago
TEDS (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
Trinity Ministries of Chicago
El Puente Nuevo
New Church of Joy
When it was her turn to speak, a representative from Youth Services in Glenview shared that, “I think there’s a misconception that there isn’t any need on the North Shore. You look around and see all of this wealth, but there are a lot of families in need.”
I thought about my coworkers and wondered how their salaries were stretching to make it work. I could never fix all of their issues no matter how many phone calls I made, but in leaving them, I had lost the opportunity to be in community with them.
My dad likes to tell a story from the middle of the pandemic, when my parents’ car broke down in the middle of Iowa and they spent a few cold days outside of Des Moines debating whether to buy a new vehicle while trying to console their brand new and now once-again freshly traumatized rescue dog who was along for the ride. I guess the situation made my dad desperate enough that he started to crave Taco Bell. And yet, when he approached the drive-through on foot to place an order (lobbies being closed due to the pandemic), he was told they couldn’t serve him – because he didn’t have a car.
You need a car to get around the Chicago suburbs. My gas bill skyrocketed immediately when we moved here. (And if you are fit enough to bike the distance, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bike rack when you get to your destination.) I knew the property taxes were going to be much higher here than in Cambridge, and I knew the sales tax was going to go from nonexistent on essential goods to very existent.
But I didn’t realize that there aren’t kitchens or food plans in the public schools, nothing easily accessible if you are food insecure. I didn’t realize that there would be additional school fees and add ons for every activity, with no great way to deflect costs without simply not participating. I commented to my husband this fall that I felt like I was being treated like a blank check and that if I had to order one more specialty t-shirt for an activity, I was going to scream.
I decided that the attitude of the area was something like, “If it’s nice to have, then buy it,” without thinking about what stress such an idea might have on families. It seemed a baseline assumption that families would be capable of taking care of themselves, as well as stepping up to give above and beyond that.
How would a lower income family live comfortably here? How would a family like that ever feel part of the community?
Coming from Cambridge, there wasn’t really a “keep up with the Jones’s” type of vibe because there was so much diversity that you couldn’t target out any particular type of living. Or maybe closer to the truth, like the “tall poppy” idea in Australia (aka “cut down the tall poppy”), anyone who wanted to ask anything of families or the community would be asked to think of how it might impact the various socioeconomic and cultural groups. I was told that our public school system included speakers of over 500 different languages. That’s a heck of a lot of groups, and yet, the mission was to ensure we were all in the same boat together.
Back at church recently, during the basket drive, I was glad the benefitting 13 organizations exist, and that they know the families and can work to fill the gaps. I hope the families who received the Thanksgiving meals were blessed by the gesture and nourished by the food.
I also hope my family gets some new way to expand our community, to meet these families ourselves and share life with them. Without the grocery store gig, I need to search for another way. Because, selfishly, we all lose out when we don’t see them.
Packing up baskets in the church gym that day reminded me of setting up for the monthly marketplace at our Cambridge elementary school. An organization called Food for Free would donate canned goods, fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen items. (I wrote previously about this endeavor here and here.) A handful of moms and I would arrange the food on tables and then invite families in to shop after school pick up that day. I also shopped. I visited with the staff and families. Then we’d go home and cook the same food that week which made me feel more connected to them.
By living together, we are all more blessed and nourished every day.
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