The brutal temperature hovers well below freezing. The wind howls. There's not a soul in sight. But Bill and Debbi Middendorp pull their Salvation Army van into this Prospect Heights parking lot prepared for a crowd. As the couple open the rear doors, one of their regulars, Victor, materializes out of the frigid air. Wearing a World Series Champions 2005 Chicago White Sox jacket, sweatpants and an Indianapolis Colts cap, Victor eyes the boxes of vending machine sandwiches donated by A & H Vending.
"There's nobody else here, so you can take five or six," Bill tells him, knowing the food won't spoil in this cold.
"Thank you. Muchas gracias," says Victor, who has diabetes and other health problems. He takes a pair of gloves for his cold, red hands. Debbi hands him a couple of blankets made by volunteers with the Blanket of Dreams programs at Mary, Seat of Wisdom Catholic Church in Park Ridge. Five other homeless men, ranging in age from 20 to maybe 60, and one woman arrive to stock up on sandwiches, protein bars and drinks, water, hand warmers and little bottles of shampoo, soap and lotion.
The woman says she has an apartment but can't afford to buy food for every meal. Some of the men take hats and gloves. A few spend nights on the floor in friends' apartments.
One wanders in from nearby woods, where he and two friends spent the night. He clutched a steaming cup of coffee, warming his hands.
None of them leaves without saying thank you, shaking hands or hugging. "They are friends," Debbi says.
This scene plays out every Tuesday and Friday for the Middendorps, both 43, and the hundreds of homeless people they serve in Prospect Heights, Wheeling, Des Plaines and Arlington Heights.
"We go out to where they are," says Bill, who started this program as a volunteer but now works for the Salvation Army Des Plaines Corps Community Center as the street outreach coordinator and administrator of the jobs program. "If we didn't give them food, they are going to be going through dumpsters, asking people for money, or stealing."
A steelworker until he hurt his back, Bill taught special education before getting his master's degree in Christian community development through the online program at Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota. He and Debbi are parents to four kids, ages 12 through 20, and live in a three-bedroom home in the Blackhawk Estates mobile home park in Des Plaines.
The First Baptist Church in the small town of George, Iowa, where the Middendorps grew up, helps with their mission. So do the Catholic churches of St. Zachary in Des Plaines and Our Lady of Hope in Rosemont. MaineStay Youth & Family Services donates backpacks to the cause. People bring boots, hats, gloves, coats, blankets and other items to the Salvation Army center, 609 W. Dempster St., in Des Plaines. Bill packs the van with items he knows his homeless friends need, jotting down a boot size or special need for his next delivery.
"That's how I got my tent -- and blankets, a hat, gloves, socks," says Rosemarie Hawn, 43, who appears at the van's stop outside the Des Plaines Public Library. Hawn says she has lived in that tent for about two years, but the Middendorps say she's been living in the woods much longer than that. She had a job and a place to live before her husband and child died and she developed multiple sclerosis, Hawn says.
The Middendorps give her a new cold-weather sleeping bag, which they set aside for her. Even with a better sleeping bag, how does the woman survive nights on the ground in a forest when the temperatures dip below zero?
"Blankets," Hawn says with a shrug.
One man grabs a packaged meal and heads inside the Des Plaines Public Library to cook it. "They're pretty creative about finding a microwave," Bill says. "One guy uses a heater in the train station."
Train station employees and police officers often help the Middendorps connect to the homeless. Last year, Bill met 2,300 times with homeless people. Their program passed out 1,700 meals.
"One guy, I didn't hear from for a year," says Bill, who worried that the man might have died or gotten into trouble. "Then he called me from Colorado to say he was doing well."
The van delivery program grew out of the Salvation Army's annual red kettle campaign's penchant for hiring homeless people to ring bells. "Most of the time, the homeless guys are our best bell-ringers," Bill says, noting they are accustomed to standing outside in the cold. "Hearing their stories and learning their needs is how this program started."
Bell-ringing also gives homeless people the opportunity to show that they are dependable and hardworking. "This year, three of them went on to get full-time jobs," Bill says, noting two were hired by the stores where they rang bells and another was hired by a restaurant across the street.
"I used to be a letter carrier before I had my stroke," says Roberto Cardona, 55, who greets the Middendorps in Des Plaines. Cardona says he has been receiving disability benefits since 1996 and lives with his brother in Des Plaines but still needs a sandwich for lunch.
"He that comes to me, I will never cast out" reads a Bible verse in Bill's office.
"Imagine the daily stress we all have," Debbi says. "And then add on the stress of not knowing where you are going to sleep that night."
At times, Bill talks those who need it into joining the Salvation Army's substance abuse treatment program. "Every single person who went through the program got their life back," Bill says. "Everyone who left is dead."
Surviving this winter is on the minds of the people they serve.
"They are grateful," says Bill as he drives back to the center. "I think I could do this every day and they'd be there every day."