Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Arlington Heights women collect food, supplies for kids during pandemic

  • Yeulanda Degala, left, started a grass-roots campaign at the beginning of the pandemic to collect snacks for kids who depended on getting free and reduced-fee lunch at school. Rachael Hooker has partnered with Degala.

    Yeulanda Degala, left, started a grass-roots campaign at the beginning of the pandemic to collect snacks for kids who depended on getting free and reduced-fee lunch at school. Rachael Hooker has partnered with Degala. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 7/7/2021 11:42 AM

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the collection box on Yeulanda Degala's front porch in Arlington Heights has never been empty.

Last month, residents dropped off diapers and cleaning supplies for families living in Arlington Park's backstretch. This month, people began donating backpacks and school supplies for students across the Northwest suburbs.

 
Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker load up items to be delivered to the back of the track residences at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.
Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker load up items to be delivered to the back of the track residences at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

The collection box first appeared at the beginning of the pandemic, as an idea to help children who would be missing free and reduced-fee lunches without going to school. Degala partnered with her friend Rachael Hooker of Arlington Heights to form a grass-roots campaign they called Neighbors Helping Neighbors Arlington Heights.

"We had absolutely no clear vision of what we were going to do," says Hooker, a local realtor, "but we figured with the connections between us we could gather some friends and share ideas and resources with a hyperlocal focus to navigate all the uncertainty that lay ahead."

Their vision took shape March 12, 2020, when they received an email that the schools would be closing and students would pivot to remote learning.

"I immediately wondered about the kids that rely on school lunches," Degala says.

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They started a Facebook group to respond to the need, and within 24 hours they had 200 people join their group. Now the page has nearly 2,500 members.

Yeulanda Degala, left, and Rachael Hooker chat near the drop-off site for snacks and other items at Degala's Arlington Heights home.
Yeulanda Degala, left, and Rachael Hooker chat near the drop-off site for snacks and other items at Degala's Arlington Heights home. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

"The response to this group has been our little Field of Dreams moment -- if you build it, they will come," Hooker says.

Degala has a degree in nonprofit administration, and most recently worked as special events coordinator for the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, though most of her experience has been working with agencies that help underserved children.

She freely shares her own story on the Facebook page, of growing up in Florida with a single mother and depending on those free and reduced-fee lunches at school.

Items collected for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors movement started by Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker. Lunchboxes collected went to District 25 schools for students returning to school last November when all students had to bring lunch from home.
Items collected for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors movement started by Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker. Lunchboxes collected went to District 25 schools for students returning to school last November when all students had to bring lunch from home. - Courtesy of Yeulanda Degala
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"People just don't think about food insecurity in Arlington Heights," she says, "but with the pandemic and people losing their jobs, the need is real."

They started by asking people to donate snacks for children. The response was overwhelming and stretched far beyond what social workers at their own children's school could distribute.

They reached out to social workers at all seven elementary buildings and two middle schools in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, and before long, Degala and Hooker began partnering with Elk Grove Township District 59, Palatine Township District 15, Wheeling Township District 21 and Prospect Heights Elementary District 23.

Items collected for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors movement started by Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker. Degala's daughter, Saira Degala, 14, sorts and boxes items at their Arlington Heights home.
Items collected for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors movement started by Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker. Degala's daughter, Saira Degala, 14, sorts and boxes items at their Arlington Heights home. - Courtesy of Yeulanda Degala

In December, they ran a targeted holiday campaign to collect $100 gift cards for the immigrant teens who attend the Newcomer Center through Northwest Suburban High School District 214. They raised far more than they expected and were able to help more needy families across the district.

"The response from the group indicated a hunger within the community to serve others safely through this difficult time" Hooker says, "and highlighted the incredibly generous spirit of our community."

Their efforts already have drawn the attention of Arlington Heights village leaders and educators. In February, Degala accepted the Community Spirit Heart of Gold Award and last spring, she and Hooker received a Distinguished Service Award from District 214.

A local Girl Scout troop donated cookies from Sweet T's bakery, gift cards to Jewel-Osco and handwritten words of encouragement to Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker's grass-roots campaign to help their neighbors in Arlington Heights and nearby communities.
A local Girl Scout troop donated cookies from Sweet T's bakery, gift cards to Jewel-Osco and handwritten words of encouragement to Yeulanda Degala and Rachael Hooker's grass-roots campaign to help their neighbors in Arlington Heights and nearby communities. - Courtesy of Yeulanda Degala

"This has gotten me through the pandemic," Degala says. "I got to meet people and work together. Our group has been super collective and collaborative and that's the beauty of it all."

Hooker agrees, adding: "Amid a global pandemic, a divided nation and so many discouraging things in the world, this little Facebook group became our community fight song against the dark."

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