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Chicago isn’t hopeless. Our city just needs more people like Samella McKenzie and her children.

Samella McKenzie left behind a great example to her children and neighbors of how one person’s act of kindness can contribute long-lasting goodness in communities.

turkey giveaway
Rev. Gwendolyn Sampson pulls out bags of frozen turkeys from the boxes at a turkey giveaway Saturday at All Things Through Christ Outreach Ministry food pantry in Englewood.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In 1997, Samella McKenzie was approaching her mid-60s, had raised 10 children — eight of whom became ministers — and was preparing to retire from her position as a supervisor telephone operator.

What was she about to do next? She had her options.

“I told her, ‘Listen mom, it’s time for you to enjoy life. Go on a cruise, visit your sisters,’” Rev. David McKenzie told us. “But she pointed out that her enjoyment came from helping other people.”

By helping others, she didn’t mean staying home and watching over her grandchildren. Samella’s joy, which turned into a more than 20-year contribution to West Englewood, came through her founding of the All Things Through Christ Ministry in 1998. A food pantry would be its main focus.

Her children witnessed how the food pantry evolved, from providing meals to families to providing care and support to the dozens of families who dropped by every week. Samella, also known as “Mother McKenzie,” would sit people next to her and ask them to come help her fold some clothes. That was her way of bonding with her neighbors and learning about their tough situations at home.

Samella McKenzie
Samella McKenzie (center).
Provided by the Rev. Gwendolyn Sampson

McKenzie would then let her children know who was in need of pastoral support, who needed counseling because of abuse at home, who needed support through rehabilitation, who needed assistance applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and who would appreciate a familiar face being present at a future court date.

Samella McKenzie died last year at the age of 86 and left behind a great example to her children and neighbors of how one person’s act of kindness can contribute to long-lasting goodness in communities that need it the most.

This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful for Chicagoans like Samella McKenzie, whose legacy is an inspiration and a challenge to our city: Step up and help make our city a better place for all of us.

No one should have to worry about getting their next meal

Samella’s final wishes were that her children remain close and continue her ministry and practice of giving back. Not only are her children remaining faithful and committed to her mission today, but they were able to expand on her vision thanks to a grant from the Greater Chicago Food Depository that’s being used to grow the pantry’s capacity.

An estimated 9.6% of Illinois residents and 9.3% of Cook County residents had trouble getting food before the pandemic. Those sad statistics of pre-COVID times have worsened over the past roughly 20 months, with new numbers showing that the percentage of residents in need of food increased to 14.3% in Illinois and 13.8% in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Black and Latino households were twice as likely to worry about where their next meal would come from than white households before the pandemic. That reality is more likely now.

“We see big numbers and it’s tempting to gloss over them, but every number is a neighbor,” says Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Food Depository. “And the more we can do to put a face on who it is that’s facing hunger, it helps us remember that there’s an opportunity to be part of the solution.”

turkey giveaway
A local resident shops through the various items at the food pantry at a turkey giveaway Saturday at All Things Through Christ Outreach Ministry food pantry in Englewood.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With the surge of long lines at food pantries, the Food Depository made a commitment to lean in and invest in vulnerable communities by providing more food and supporting existing and new partners. Through grants, food pantries were better able to assist people; for instance, by installing cold storage units and expanding days and hours of operation.

We are in the middle of the season of giving, and donating money and supplies to nonprofits is a move that will be on everyone’s mind. But there are families who will face hunger during other times of the year, too.

It’s important to keep that in mind, once past the holidays.

When families aren’t hungry, children can focus more on school. When families aren’t hungry, parents can focus more on finding a job. When families aren’t hungry, adults have energy to put into addressing the critical issues affecting their neighborhoods.

Our communities aren’t hopeless. They just need more people like Samella McKenzie and her children.

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