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The pandemic just another of life’s pitfalls for the needy on Thanksgiving

Several hundred lined up on the Northwest Side for a free turkey meal during a Thanksgiving like no other.

A volunteer with the Joined Hands Food Pantry on the Northwest Side hands out a Thanksgiving meal Thursday.
A volunteer with the Joined Hands Food Pantry on the Northwest Side hands out a Thanksgiving meal Thursday. The food pantry distributed the meals at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 4939 W. Montrose Ave. in the Portage Park neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

They started arriving about 8:30 a.m. — the chronically unlucky, the broken-hearted, the wounded, the hungry.

A mother huddled in the cold with her two small sons, her eyes downcast as they clutched empty grocery bags they soon hoped to fill. A wife cupped her hands over her husband’s ears to keep them warm.

“I’m really hungry,” said Susan Zahn, 65. She’d taken the bus from her one-bedroom Mayfair apartment to St. John’s Lutheran Church, where she stood in line — like hundreds of others Thursday — for a hot, to-go Thanksgiving meal courtesy of Joined Hands Food Pantry on the Northwest Side.

Zahn hadn’t had a meal — if you can call it that — since Wednesday afternoon: a bowl of oatmeal with some coffee creamer as thickener.

“It’s the end of the month,” Zahn said, explaining why she’d run out of groceries and money to buy more.

A fuller explanation: Zahn has been out of work for months, like so many others during the pandemic.

Volunteers from Joined Hands Food Pantry handed out free Thanksgiving meals. The food pantry distributed the meals at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 4939 W. Montrose Ave. in the Portage Park neighborhood.
Volunteers from Joined Hands Food Pantry handed out free Thanksgiving meals. The food pantry distributed the meals at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 4939 W. Montrose Ave. in the Portage Park neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“This year, with the craziness and the hopelessness, where you don’t know from day to day exactly what’s going on, this gives people hope. That’s important. If we can do something to instill that as well as feed them, that’s as good a thing as anything,” said Marty Busse, a pantry volunteer. “A lot of these people are people who come to the pantry normally, but there are a lot of people I’ve never seen before.”

Those included Jorge Medrano, hobbling on a cane. He lost his job as a bartender in April. He also spent a month in the hospital, after contracting COVID-19.

“We’re grateful for the people who are giving us some food today,” said Medrano, 61, of Portage Park. “We thank the Lord also for providing. You’ve got to have faith in these days.”

For others in line, 2020 wouldn’t even make their personal highlight reel of misfortune. The low point for Patrick Cloherty, 63, came years before — he lost Isabel, his wife of 30 years, on Aug. 5, 2012 to heart disease.

“That day I felt a gigantic part of me died,” said Cloherty, his hands thrust into the pockets of a gray parka. “She was the only one who ever cared about me.”

As Cloherty spoke, a pantry volunteer raised a megaphone, urging those in the midst of “the storm” to trust God.

“Do not lose heart. Do not lose faith,” said the volunteer, Michael Mathews. “He promises to be with us through the valley.”

Not far away, a man in line who identified himself only as “Ken,” offered, unprompted, a joke: “Last night, I dreamed I was a muffler. I woke up exhausted.”

An hour or so later, Zahn, with a smile on her face and grocery bag heavy with roast turkey and pecan pie, was on her way to the bus stop and then home.

“I’m very happy,” she said.

Volunteers from Joined Hands Food Pantry handed out free meals at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Thursday. “A lot of these people are people who come to the pantry normally, but there are a lot of people I’ve never seen before,” said Marty Busse, a pantry volunteer.
Volunteers from Joined Hands Food Pantry handed out free meals at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Thursday. “A lot of these people are people who come to the pantry normally, but there are a lot of people I’ve never seen before,” said Marty Busse, a pantry volunteer.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times