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‘This community is my family’ — ailing Pilsen ice cream man thankful for ‘angels’ who helped him

Don Ananias Ocampo needed knee surgery, ‘really suffering from the pain and almost without hope. But now I feel that hope is growing, and I feel good.’

Don Ananías Ocampo, who worked as a paletero selling ice cream in Pilsen for seven years, is celebrating this Christmas in a new studio apartment in Pilsen, thanks to help from neighbors and customers.
Don Ananías Ocampo, who worked as a paletero selling ice cream in Pilsen for seven years, is celebrating this Christmas in a new studio apartment in Pilsen, thanks to help from neighbors and customers.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Sunlight broke through the blinds of Don Ananías Ocampo’s studio apartment as he fumbled with the ornaments on his Christmas tree.

The bright white walls and high ceilings in his third-floor Pilsen apartment are starkly different from the dark, unsanitary, rodent-infested room the 77-year-old had called home the past six months. That room, accessible only from an alley along 18th Street, wasn’t safe for Ocampo, who struggles to walk.

But his smile peeked through his mask now as he gripped the walker he uses to get around after recent knee surgery. Ocampo is grateful because he wouldn’t have been able to move to his new apartment this month without the help of others in Pilsen who came through for him.

“The community helped get this place for me, and I am very happy,” Ocampo said in Spanish.

In recent years, he has become a familiar sight in Pilsen, pushing his paletero cart along 18th Street, selling ice cream. This past summer, his health took a turn. Arthritis in his knees worsened after decades of laborious work, his Parkinson’s disease became more aggressive, and he learned he had skin cancer.

Don Ananías Ocampo, a longtime paletero selling ice cream in Pilsen, has battled health problems but is doing better now that he’s on the right medication.
Don Ananías Ocampo, a longtime paletero selling ice cream in Pilsen, has battled health problems but is doing better now that he’s on the right medication.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Ocampo has no family. But Hilda Burgos, who lives in Pilsen, has become something of a caregiver for Ocampo, taking him to doctor appointments, fighting to find him better housing and checking in on him.

As Ocampo’s health difficulties mounted, she and others who know Ocampo wanted to help.

Burgos, Ben Emmrich and Raul Cruz led Pilsen residents in a GoFundMe fund-raising effort at the end of October to help Ocampo find a new place to live and cover some medical expenses and essentials. They set a goal of $12,000. When they reached it in two weeks, they increased the goal to $18,000.

Rent for Ocampo’s new apartment is about $750 a month. He’s waiting for assistance from the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which he hopes will cover his entire rent, leaving him with just his electric bill to pay every month.

If that doesn’t come through, Ocampo will need to rely only on the goodwill of others to help make ends meet.

“I’m so proud of Hilda, Ben and Raul, who were like my children in helping me when they didn’t have to and everyone else in the community who helped me,” Ocampo said. “I sometime cry and say they really are like my family. This community is my family.”

The three also have been helping with his housing and health needs.

“I feel much better than before the surgery because I was really suffering from the pain and almost without hope,” Ocampo said. “But now I feel that hope is growing, and I feel good.”

As Ocampo’s health improves, he hopes to start selling ice cream again. But Burgos hopes those days are behind him.

Don Ananías Ocampo behind his paletero cart on 18th Street in Pilsen in 2019.
Don Ananías Ocampo behind his paletero cart on 18th Street in Pilsen in 2019.
Cortesía de Hilda Burgos

“The cart he pushes is too big and heavy and is not good for his legs,” Burgos said.

She said Ocampo’s Parkinson’s disease had gone untreated for a long time, to the point he no longer could hold a spoon to feed himself. Now that he’s getting the medication he needs, she said he can do that and handle other basic tasks on his own.

Ocampo’s new apartment building is wheelchair-accessible, with an elevator. A laundry room is down the hall from his apartment. His shower has the handles he needs to stay safe.

Burgos has decorated the apartment and helped furnish it with a bed, a recliner and a sofa. The Christmas tree was also her doing.

She’s happy she could help him a place to live safely.

“This is a big victory for us,” Burgos said. “Now, I can sleep well, and I can stop crying and thinking that he is going to die alone in that back alley. I don’t think any person that is his age should be in that situation. We just want him to be happy and live with dignity.”

Ocampo said it’s nice knowing he has so many supporters. They are, he said, his “angels.”

Hilda Burgos, a friend and customer, has helped look after Don Ananías Ocampo, who worked as a “paletero” selling ice cream in Pilsen until health issues sidelined him. They were photographed in his new apartment, which she helped find and furnish. on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.
Hilda Burgos, a friend and customer, has helped look after Don Ananías Ocampo, who worked as a paletero selling ice cream in Pilsen until health problems sidelined him.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times