As the pandemic took hold early in 2020, the needs of some were immediate and painful. Before aid from the federal government arrived, or when that help was not accessible due to worries over immigration status there were shared efforts made to funnel cash and other necessities of life directly to families and individuals.

In Berwyn, a community with a large immigrant population, Awake,  a small non-profit with a focus on adding educational resources and building civic engagement, quickly changed gears. Lisa Polderman, vice president of Awake’s board, said that when the first mandated closures came that her organization reached out to the local families who were receiving educational services. 

“We anticipated they would be hit hard,” she said. Many of Awake’s families are wary of government help in the first place due to current policies on immigration.

The impact of lost jobs – many of their clients work in restaurants and hospitality where jobs were immediately closed – translated into rent which could not be paid, groceries which quickly dwindled.

Awake took $5,000 from its small reserves with the intention of giving $500 directly to its families. It was always a flat $500. There were no strings or demands on how it should be spent. 

The organization then turned to its Berwyn neighbors to raise more. This sort of spontaneous giving is not the tradition in Berwyn but it was in the face of COVID. Awake raised $40,000 from 735 small donors, many of them from Berwyn, but also from Cicero, Chicago and Oak Park. Public school teachers turned to their networks to raise cash that would benefit their school students. The Berwyn Running Club held a Virtual 5K to raise money for Awake.

And with that grassroots backing, two local foundations took note and made grants. The Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation contributed $15,000 from its quickly launched COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund. The Logan Foundation added $10,000.

All told Awake raised over $70,000 last spring which all went out the door to families in need. “It blew out of the water any previous efforts we’d made,” said Polderman. “People really felt the need to give and to do it locally.”

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Meanwhile in Oak Park and River Forest, communities with much more structured and aligned non-profits, the same need for immediate and direct help was seen by a small group of neighbors. They quickly launched Oak Park Mutual Aid with a goal of direct giving to those impacted by COVID. From the start there was also the goal of offering the practical and mundane help necessary when all routines are quickly disrupted. So grocery shopping and delivery became part of the service, picking up prescriptions for those quarantined, actively connecting people with existing social services and government agencies which could help but which individuals had never needed to think about before.

Evelyn Antwi-Mensah heads the Oak Park-based African American Christian Foundation. Started by her father 35 years ago, AACF offers job training and placement, job readiness and high school completion options for younger people.

“My father was all about education, about creating a nurturing environment,” said Antwi-Mensah of her dad, Kwadwo Antwi-Mensah. 

When the pandemic hit, AACF was hit, too, with multiple challenges and a sudden surge in demand for its services. The agency closed its North Avenue headquarters for two weeks while it figured out how to shift all of its training to online virtual learning. 

Active participants in the program have leapt to nearly 300 as “people lost their jobs due to COVID,” said Antwi-Mensah.  Now people who worked in hard hit industries such as restaurants and working “to get skills that allow them to find work, to earn more.”

The non-profit focuses on people from 16-24, most are low income, and says Antwi-Mensah face “additional barriers” including being young parents, ex-offenders, mental health challenges, homelessness or aging out of the state’s foster care system.

AACF supports its clients with the full range of support services including tuition, transit and driving lessons.

AACF also benefitted from a COVID Rapid Relief Fund grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation last spring. Find out more at

Jason Frankena is an Oak Parker – a South East Oak Parker he makes clear – who saw his work as a project manager in commercial real estate construction “grinding to a halt” with the pandemic. With his wife still working and their immediate needs protected, Jason said, “I had time on my hands. I had the opportunity to help.”

He read about the early efforts of Oak Park Mutual Aid – it had come together in a hurry early in the pandemic – on social media sites and he reached out.

“I’ve seen the first-hand impact on my neighbors. And I’ve seen the ripple effects as jobs were eliminated, incomes were greatly reduced. Food, rent, utilities unpaid,” he said.

“We’re not trained social workers. We’re not social workers,” he said of the dozens of local people who have come together through Oak Park Mutual Aid. 

Frankena said people with needs and with the ability to help come to the organization through the website at Donations of cash can be made at the site, offers to volunteer are also welcomed. Neighbors looking for help can fill out a simple form spelling out what they need. Responses are made within 48 hours, he says.

So far, the nascent non-profit is making small direct cash gifts to get an electric bill paid or toward rent. And then it offers to help navigate “a social service network that is scattered and not logical,” he says. 

Frankena says he likes the grassroots nature of Oak Park Mutual Aid. It has an organic appeal as they work to help neighbors, families they know from their kids’ school, from around the village. 

Oak Park Mutual Aid is currently organizing to become a 501(c)3 non-profit.

“We don’t see the need ending anytime soon,” he says of the completely volunteer organization.

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