On Valentine's Day weekend, hundreds of people bundled in hundreds of coats and double the mittens will take to the streets to raise support for the homeless community of the Fox Valley.
An outdoor fundraiser in the dead of winter? Whatever are they thinking?
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While other organizations schedule walk-a-thons for more accommodating weather, Wayside Cross Ministries picks the breathtaking cold in the hope that walkers will pick up on what it's like to be homeless, if only for an hour or so.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes will be held Saturday, Feb. 13, simultaneously in Aurora and Elgin, the two communities where Wayside carries out the bulk of its ministry.
In both locations, the walk gets under way at 9 a.m.
"It provides an opportunity for individuals and their families to first of all identify with the plight of the homeless," said the Rev. Wayne Greenawalt, executive director.
"Quite a few women and children actually spend their night in a car, and quite a few spend the night in a park."
Wayside's Lifespring Center, a transitional living facility for women and children, meets that need for many homeless families in Aurora, and it's only one of a half-dozen programs initiated by the Christian ministry.
Proceeds from the Aurora walk will be split between Lifespring Center and Urban Youth Ministry, another program that features after-school tutoring, mentoring, curricular and extracurricular activities, summer day camp, and sports for kids at risk. Aurora walkers are encouraged to raise at least $100 each.
The route is a one-mile loop beginning and ending at the Fred Rodgers Community Center, 501 College Ave., where participants can warm up with refreshments and get more information about Wayside in the gym. In the attached building next door, Lifespring Center will be open for tours.
"This walk is essential to what we do," said UYM director Scot Thurman. "It brings an awareness to the community of the types of programs that Urban Youth and Lifespring do in the community, as well as helping us to fund each of these outreach initiatives."
Wayside has been reaching out to the poor in Aurora with food, shelter, and other support since 1928. Elgin Wayside Center was spun off eight years ago to serve northern Kane County, offering hot lunches or sack lunches, job training, spiritual help, laundry facilities, showers, lockers, a mailing address, phone number and other services.
The Elgin walk begins at Evangelical Covenant Church of Elgin, 1565 Larkin Ave., and proceeds a mile south on McLean Boulevard. to the 1730-32 Berkeley St. building that Wayside Center shares with the PADS overnight shelter.
"That's the path that a lot of the homeless seem to travel," said the Rev. Dr. Phil Wood, director of the Elgin center.
Participants are asked to raise pledge support of any amount, keeping in mind that Walk A Mile serves as a major fundraiser to buy food and supplies and pay the bills.
"It gets us through the winter," Wood said. "People are really generous usually through the holidays, usually around Christmas, and then in January our giving will drop sometimes 75 or 80 percent."
"Mary," a 58-year-old woman who didn't want to give her real name, learned about Elgin Wayside after showing up to spend the night at PADS. For 14 months, she lived this way - nights at PADS, days at Wayside, where she ate meals, counseled with a professional, and used the computers to look for a job and housing.
"They just took me in under their wing," Mary said. "I'm an older lady, and I had lost all my savings. I felt really bad, really low, and now I've got my own place. I would not have had that without them."
She said the staff helped her find an apartment online.
"And Dr. Wood kept saying, 'You're going to find it, you're going to find that right apartment just for you.'"
Many of the homeless and formerly homeless, like Mary, will be out there shivering in the cold on Feb. 13 with the rest of the community. Participants can walk individually, as a family, or with a church, school, or other group.
Churches sending teams include Flowing Grace Church, Aurora; Evangelical Covenant Church of Elgin; Harvest Bible Chapel, Elgin; First Baptist Church of Geneva; City on a Hill, Hoffman Estates; Harvest Baptist Church, Oswego; Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, and Christ Community Church, St. Charles.
Students from Benedictine University in Lisle and Aurora University also are putting teams together, and more than a dozen business and community sponsors have signed on to provide music, refreshments, prizes, gifts, and entertainment after the walks.
In Elgin, homeless people have volunteered to hold signs with messages of encouragement all along the walkers' route.
"We're kind of flipping roles," Wood said. "The people that are usually being served will serve the walkers."
In Aurora, said capital campaign director Chrystal Maxwell, homeless people will walk side-by-side with homeowners to raise ministry funds.
"Our clients are on these teams," Maxwell said. "It's not like we're walking for these people. We're walking with them."