Neighbors in Need: WeGo Together for Kids gathers agencies to help West Chicago families

  • Volunteer Rocio Hernandez helps a visitor to the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago. The group is one of the Daily Herald Neighbors in Need grant recipients this year, funded in partnership with the McCormick Foundation.

    Volunteer Rocio Hernandez helps a visitor to the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago. The group is one of the Daily Herald Neighbors in Need grant recipients this year, funded in partnership with the McCormick Foundation. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Maria Olegua hands out food at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago.

    Volunteer Maria Olegua hands out food at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Michelle Hernandez directs traffic at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago.

    Volunteer Michelle Hernandez directs traffic at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Maria Davalos staffs the produce section at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago.

    Volunteer Maria Davalos staffs the produce section at the WeGo Together for Kids food pantry at Leman Middle School in West Chicago. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/3/2022 5:30 PM

With her husband's hours cut, Natali Ayala decided to check out the food pantry she had heard about through a school newsletter.

Sitting inside Leman Middle School with her two children, ages 3 and 5, and brother-in-law Williams Contreras, she waited patiently to shop for a few staples. She emerged with a cart filled with groceries. Her bags included milk, rice, beans, small bags of Doritos, cans of fruit and vegetables, and fresh produce.

 

"This is going to help us a lot," the West Chicago woman said.

The food pantry, open every Tuesday, is just one of the programs WeGo Together For Kids supports. The pantry serves more than 40 families each week.

WeGo Together for Kids, a collaborative of organizations serving West Chicago families, is one of five organizations awarded a grant this year through the Daily Herald Neighbors in Need fund in partnership with the McCormick Foundation. The fund raises money and awareness to help address issues of hunger, homelessness and health care disparities in the suburbs. For every dollar donated, the McCormick Foundation donates 50 cents to the fund.

WeGo Together for Kids, formed in 2006, brings together more than 60 community agencies dedicated to serving West Chicago families. The group meets monthly to review needs and goals and to share data on the impact of various programs.

The agency works to secure funding that is distributed to partner groups. Their efforts also provide for family liaisons in West Chicago schools, a mental health clinician and other services.

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Until this year, an employee from West Chicago Elementary School District 33 has led WeGo Together for Kids on a part-time basis. Aided through a Neighbors in Need grant, WeGo Together for Kids now has a full-time director hosted through Metropolitan Family Services.

"It's an exciting time," said Molly Beck Dean, who was hired as the agency's full-time director this fall.

Beck Dean, who previously worked as a youth program director for Evangelical Lutheran Church America, said she spent her first few weeks on the job talking to partner agencies and community members.

With a background in serving middle and high school students, Beck Dean said she hopes to explore more ways to serve those students.

"We're challenging our partners to think about how we are serving the families of these older students and helping prepare them for what happens after high school," she said.

In addition to the food pantry at Leman Middle School, We Go Together for Kids' partner agencies host programs such as a back-to-school backpack giveaway, a fall coat drive and a Christmas shop, where parents can shop for toys and other children's gifts at low cost.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The group also supports programming in partnership with groups such as Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, which provides an after-school arts program in several West Chicago elementary schools.

"It's fun," said Sven Axel Abasolo Holm, a 10-year-old from West Chicago whose mother is a visual artist with CAPE and teaches in the West Chicago program. "We get to express ourselves."

He says he enjoys spending time with his friends and trying out different activities, adding his favorite so far has been making stickers of the planets.

Beck Dean said she hopes to continue working with partner agencies to enhance or add new programs. She said she's unsure how this year's grant will be used but knows it will benefit families.

"I would love to launch a new program or challenge a partner to try something new," she said. "I think there's some exciting ideas from our partners."

She added, she recently had a meeting with partner agencies and asked them what they would do with additional funds. The questions sparked conversations about a variety of options including a literacy program to help the Latino community, mental health programs, mentoring or internship programs partnering small business owners with teens or adults, or legal assistance programs.

"The ideas are endless," she said.

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