'Everyone deserves dignity': Hesed House aims to help people avoid, overcome homelessness

Mark Watson has a large, lovely home in Shorewood that he shares with his wife and three children.

He has a good job, as an operations shift manager at the Braidwood nuclear power plant. The family recently enjoyed the Feast of Celebrations, commemorating Hanukkah and other Bible-based holidays.

It's pretty good for a guy who was homeless his senior year of high school.

But during that year, Hesed House in Aurora helped his family get back on their feet.

So Watson is more than happy to give back to the organization with money and, lately, service.

“I jumped at it,” Watson said of being asked in 2020 to serve on the board.

Hesed House this year was among the recipients of a grant through Daily Herald Neighbors in Need, a partnership with the McCormick Foundation fund that raises awareness and helps solve issues of hunger, homelessness and health care disparities in the suburbs.

Being homeless

In 2000, Watson's father was injured on a job and laid off from a second job. The family of five lost their home and entered Hesed's Transitional Living Community dormitory. TLC residents work on improving themselves and attaining practical skills to return to an independent life.

Watson smiled as he recalled how the residents watched, on television, the state playoff basketball games in which he played for West Aurora High School. “It was like a family,” he said.

The TLC is just one of many ways Hesed helps people. The organization was started in 1981 by a group of Aurora churches that offered temporary shelter on a rotating basis as part of the Public Action to Deliver Shelter network. They opened a permanent shelter in the mid-1980s. It operates the second-largest homeless shelter in the state.

Hesed House has two shelter programs at 659 S. River St., plus supportive housing programs there and in the community. Across the street is the Comprehensive Resource Center, where case management takes place for people getting counseling for trauma, financial guidance, job guidance and more.

Hesed helps more than 1,000 people a year, according to its 2021 annual report.

Watson lived in the TLC until he left for Navy boot camp in September 2001. He had an affinity for math and science while attending high school.

In the Navy, he underwent two years of training at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command to qualify as a reactor operator, operated the eight nuclear reactors on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, and then was an instructor for more than four years at the Navy's Nuclear Engineering School.

Upon discharge in 2011, he joined Exelon Generation as an instructor. He has a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering technology and is now a licensed senior reactor operator.

Watson began donating part of his salary to Hesed House. The Scriptures, he said, command people to not just give to churches but to take care of strangers, the poor, the fatherless and the widowed.

“We as a society should always be helping each other out,” he said.

He was asked to join the board of directors in 2020.

Looking back on being homeless as a teen, he said his younger siblings were embarrassed to have people know they were homeless, but he was not.

Getting help from Hesed was the logical thing to do to fix the family's situation. And he now encourages people to seek help from Hesed sooner rather than later.

“It helped us out a lot,” Watson said.

Part of the help

Besides the professional staff, Hesed relies on scores of volunteers. Two of them are Brian and Tina Farbelow of Naperville.

On a bitterly cold day last week, Tina, a professional organizer, was a whirling dervish during the first winter-coat giveaway of the season at the Comprehensive Resource Center.

As clients waited in the lobby, she filled orders out of a storeroom, noting the size and gender of the recipient. She grabbed bags of donated coats and hung them up on hangers.

“It's the busiest day of the year,” the Naperville woman said, surrounded by racks and neatly labeled bins of clothing.

The Farbelows had been helping homeless people in Chicago when the pastor of their church, Ginger Creek Community in Aurora, asked them to take over the church's ministry. At first it was through a monthly dinner, but when COVID-19 started, it changed over to delivering boxes of food to people.

During the first part of the pandemic, the Hesed buildings closed and clients were moved to a hotel in Schaumburg. The Farbelows delivered food there and did laundry.

“It's really been a blessing we have been allowed to get to know the guests,” Brian Farbelow said. He also noted that Hesed House helps people even when the clients have graduated to having their own homes.

“Times are still hard. They still need assistance. Just because you are out of a homeless shelter doesn't mean life is perfect,” he said.

Brian in particular is motivated by what happened to his grandfather, who was homeless and died outside a shelter in Chicago.

“Nobody should have to die being alone and homeless,” he said. “Everyone deserves dignity, I don't care who you are. That's why I go.”

• To donate to Neighbors in Need, visit The McCormick Foundation matches all donations to the Daily Herald Neighbors in Need Fund at 50 cents on the dollar.

  Tina Farbelow of Naperville carries a bag of coats to distribute to the residents of Hesed House at the Comprehensive Resource Center in Aurora. Rick West/
  Tina Farbelow of Naperville is a volunteer for Hesed House in Aurora, using her professional organizing experience to keep things moving, like during this season's first winter-coat giveaway. Rick West/
  Mark Watson, of Shorewood, is on the board of directors of Hesed House in Aurora. As a senior in high school, he lived with his family in Hesed House's Transitional Living for unhoused people. Susan Sarkauskas/
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