Emmaus House, volunteers fighting suburban poverty
Every Sunday night, they gather for dinner.
Large tables fill much of the basement at St. Francis de Sales Church. At each, men, women and children eat plates filled with pasta, fresh breads, salad and enjoy conversation.
In an adjacent room, tables are filled with groceries. One table is piled high with frozen pizzas, another with ground beef. There are tables featuring ripened bananas, pastries and more.
Men and women, some accompanied with children, carry grocery bags as they walk single file, picking up food they will take home.
Since 1999, volunteers who make up Lake Zurich-based Emmaus House have helped people -- starting with a hot meal and a bag filled with groceries and growing to offer much more.
"It makes us feel that what we do is truly worthwhile and is needed," said village Trustee Dana Reznik, president of Emmaus House. "It opens our eyes and other's eyes to the problems, the poverty that exists in Lake County. We can't sweep it under the rug. We need to address it, and we are trying in a small way here."
Seven people sat down to the nonprofit organization's first community dinner. Now, there are 150 to 200 guests each Sunday.
Reznik said churches, businesses, schools and athletic teams are among the groups that sign up to bring the food and serve the dinners that begin at 6 p.m. She said they could not exist without volunteers.
"We are so lucky. There are three or four Sundays we will have to scramble and collect food. We have host groups for almost every Sunday," she said.
Jackie Pasha serves as the dinner coordinator for Emmaus House, working with volunteer groups to make sure the dinners run smoothly.
"We want them to know there is a place in the community they can come to get a hot meal," Pasha said. "Sometimes we have leftovers and they can carry out a hot meal as well."
Jyoti Mottier of Lake Zurich joins volunteers from Alpine Chapel once a month to help, along with her husband, Matt, and daughters, Rebecca, 15, and Abigail, 13.
"It's important for us to help others. We all feel God asks us to do that, and we want our kids to serve others and understand how blessed they really are," Mottier said.
Rzeznik said they don't ask guests if they need food. Some come for companionship. And they come from beyond Lake Zurich, including Wauconda, Island Lake, Palatine, Vernon Hills and Itasca.
"A lot of our guests know each other. They sit at the same tables. They are here every Sunday," she said. "We get to know them, too. It's truly a community."
Among the regulars are Nellie Ratloff and Lula Tellor, who live together in Lake Zurich. They've been coming to Emmanus House since the first dinner.
"I enjoy meeting different people, and we enjoy the meals. We're thankful they do this," Tellor said.
Ratloff added, "I love the people here. Everyone is so friendly."
In addition to dinner, guests may find health care providers offering services or Girl Scout troops offering crafts to kids on Sundays. One night, volunteers from St. Francis de Sales confirmation group served ice cream sundaes.
Another core part of Emmaus House's mission is to provide food so guests can make meals at home. Volunteers such as Kathleen Murray and Donna Wascow, both of Hawthorn Woods, travel to businesses such as Costco, Trader Joe's, Jewel, Pizza Hut and local bakeries, who donate food that is beyond its sell date but still good. Each Sunday, donations are displayed in the harvest room where guests can pick up food to take home.
"It helps us to know they are able to bring something home and hopefully tide them over until the next time they come over," Wascow said.
Murray added, "Some are living paycheck to paycheck and are grateful we are able to do this."
Coming for 10 years, Joanne Allen of Lake Zurich said the harvest room gives her peace of mind.
"It means a lot to me because if it wasn't for this place, I don't know what I'd do," she said.
Emmaus House also helps those who risk eviction or foreclosure.
Rzeznik said they are able to link individuals with resources to help whether it be township, county or utility companies. Through financial donations, the organization provides help in paying rent, gas bills or child care. And through grants, Emmaus House provides assistance such as baby supplies to Ela Township residents and shoes to children going to school.
But Emmaus House faces a new challenge this year: fundraising. Previously, the organization relied on its annual rummage sale. However, due to three resale shops opening in the area and decline in donations, Rzeznik said this year will be the first they won't hold the sale.
Rzeznik said Emmaus House will always offer the dinner and harvest room, which do not rely on financial donations. But she hopes people will support them financially so they can help others.
"We may need to cut back on housing grants to help people financially. We will do what we can. We will brainstorm how to raise more money," she said.