Born of the pandemic, District 214 program for student needs expands reach

A student who is the sole source of income for her family, amid her single mother's illness.

Another student who lost everything, including a pet dog, in a house fire.

A family whose father passed away, mother was laid off of work, and had no heat in their house as the winter set in.

Those are just a few of the harrowing stories that social workers in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 say they've come across.

Sometimes the solution - albeit temporary - is simple.

Like paying for a couple nights' stay at a local hotel, writing a check to the landlord, or providing a gift card to buy groceries.

When social workers are able to deliver that good news, there's a sense of relief, gratitude, and usually tears from students and their parents who are going through tough times.

"It's things that we wouldn't even think of that we might take for granted, but for the family is a huge deal," said Raymundo Galarza, a social worker at District 214's alternative schools at the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights.

Born of the pandemic, the District 214 Education Foundation's 214 Cares emergency financial assistance program is here to stay, now addressing a variety of needs of students and their families, from helping pay the rent to putting food on the table.

214 Cares is one of five recipients of a grant from the Neighbors in Need campaign, a Daily Herald and McCormick Foundation partnership that helps fund agencies that address hunger, homelessness and health care disparities in the suburbs.

The emergency support program launched in District 214 at the onset of the pandemic, distributing $106,000 to more than 350 school district families in 2020 and 2021. At the time, the primary issues for families were the loss of jobs and housing.

Since then, the foundation has supported dozens of other families with $35,000 in emergency assistance. But the needs have grown and are varied, so officials are trying to sustain the 214 Cares fund by making an appeal for donor support.

"Since COVID, there have been other needs that have come forward that are quite poignant: medical costs, utilities, transportation, memorial expenses for students and families," said Michael Happ, the foundation's executive director. "So there's a real hunger for us to have an organizing, easily identifiable, and recognized by the community fund. People know they can give to 214 Cares and it will go to help those kids and their families in our community that need it."

The greatest, most common needs are for rental assistance, clothing and food, said Galarza, who is among some two dozen social workers across the district's six high schools and specialized schools program. They routinely will purchase gift cards to Jewel, Walmart, Fiesta Market in Wheeling and Fresh Farms in Wheeling. They also stock clothing closets and food pantries throughout the school district.

"Food really is the biggest thing. We take it for granted so much," he said. "Money that we would spend on ourselves could buy enough meals for three people."

Officials have set a goal of raising up to $25,000, which is roughly the amount between what families request and what the foundation is able to afford. There's no set limit on how much an individual family may receive, but each request is reviewed by Happ with oversight from the foundation finance committee and board of trustees.

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

A helping hand: How you can assist fellow suburbanites this holiday season

  Student Malik Foster unboxes donated clothing items Friday in the clothing closet at Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights. Foster is among the students in a service-learning sociology class who help run the clothing center and an adjoining food pantry. Joe Lewnard/
District 214 Cares

District 214 Education Foundation's 214 Cares

Year founded: 2020

Number of people served: More than 350 school district families at the height of the pandemic, and dozens more since

Biggest needs: Food, clothing, rental assistance

Where to donate: <a href=""></a>

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.