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posted: 5/10/2013 2:46 PM

Season's first picnic with homeless May 13 in McHenry County

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Submitted by Compassion for Campers

The Compassion for Campers program, which supports homeless PADS clients while the church-based rotating shelter sites are shut down for the warmer months, is gearing up for a second year of service.

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After the overnight shelters at the end of April, PADS clients had one relatively mild night before they were plunged into days of heavy rain and cold weather.

Record numbers had crowded the shelters all winter as the economic crisis continued to shake out more victims.

The chronic and long-term homeless were joined by record numbers of the new homeless, previously middle class people whose luck has run out with joblessness, underemployment, divorce, and mortgage foreclosure. That includes whole families, women, and children who are unprepared to face the possibilities of camping out in clumps of remnant woods and living the dangerous lives of quasi-criminal squatters.

Last year, recognizing the plight of both the long-term and new homeless and a shortage of services to help with basic survival, members of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry decided to see what they could do to help out. Starting out working with their own cash and supplies begged from church members, they created Compassion for Campers.

The idea was simple. Collect and distribute the most needed items for those forced to camp out -- bug spray, suntan lotion, bottle water, toilet paper, basic hygiene supplies, nonperishable food, gift cards for gas or meals, all the way up to sleeping bags and tents. Items to be distributed were brought to the PADS office on Kishwaukee Valley Road outside of Woodstock every Monday. Volunteers also would prepare and share a picnic lunch with plenty of leftovers to take along. Unlike a soup kitchen, volunteers and clients ate together, socialized as equals, got to know each other personally.

As the word got out to the community, people from other churches, clubs, and civic organizations pitched in to collect donations and to volunteer to host a Monday lunch. Individuals bought supplies and brought them to the U.U. congregation, 5503 Bull Valley Road in McHenry. People chipped change into collection jars. More stuff could be distributed.

By the end of the season, Compassion for Campers was a self-organized, but well-oiled machine. A musical benefit at the church raised several hundred dollars much of which became seed money for operations this year. During the off-season, the program won a $405 grant from Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice, a consortium of Chicago area congregations. On May 12, the program will benefit from a Second Sunday Collection at the church which will raise several hundred more dollars.

For a program that started on a shoe string out of the pockets of a handful of volunteers, it is a good start to a second year. But the need is great and dwarfs their resources.

This year, the first picnic of the season will be held at noon Monday, May 13, at noon at 14411 Kishwaukee Valley Road near Woodstock. The public is invited to participate. Bring a salad, cookies, or supplies to share or just an openness to learn.

Individuals and groups wanting to volunteer to host a lunch between now and the end of September should contact Lisa Jacobsen at ourlocalgurl@gmail.com or Sue Rekenthaler at tomatos@mc.net.

There is a drop box to receive donations of supplies at the church, 5503 Bull Valley Road in McHenry. Call the church office at (815) 322-2464 to confirm hours when it will be open to receive donations. If you have a number of items to donate, you can email Jacobsen or Rekenthaler and arrange a pickup.

Tax-deductible monetary donations can be done with a check made out to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the words "Compassion for Campers" on the memo line. All donations go exclusively to direct goods and services for clients. None is used for administration.

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