In the unforgiving year just past, we might all have lost our path if not for the helpers and the heroes. Across 2020, Wednesday Journal sought out and told the stories of so many people doing good, taking risks, watching out during the COVID-19 pandemic. When, in November, we began to focus on our 36th annual Villager of the Year, we turned to readers for their nominations and we found a whole new group of helpers and heroes that we'd never known.
So as 2021 opens with promise — and the promise of more pain — we present 16 Villagers of the Year. Each person profiled in our pages is fully worthy of recognition. Yet we'd note that each also stands in for a larger group of our neighbors who have been brave and kind, bold and innovative.
And so we have an ICU nurse at Rush Oak Park Hospital and an ER doc at UIC. But we all know of so many first responders who call Oak Park and River Forest home. We have the leaders of two nonprofits who have lived their mission and reinvented their strategies on the fly in the elemental realms of food and shelter. But every nonprofit has been strained and challenged and worked hard to meet those challenges.
Each person we profile will bring to your mind someone that we have missed. We'd urge you to reach out to them, to thank them and, if appropriate, to support them with a donation. And please, share their stories at OakPark.com or in a letter to the editor.
In this impossible year, we are all Villagers of the Year.
Marina Del Rios
ER doc sees vaccine as going on offense vs. COVID
As an emergency room physician at the University of Illinois Hospital, Oak Park resident Dr. Marina Del Rios has witnessed firsthand the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I often leave the emergency department not knowing if the patient that I left behind whether they're even going to survive the night," said Del Rios. "It's hard when it's multiples of those in one day and for multiple days in a row."
Those that don't survive aren't always senior citizens or people with underlying health conditions. Del Rios has seen the COVID-19 claim the lives of otherwise healthy young people.
"I stopped counting the people that I know that have either gotten sick, ended up in the ICU or died," said Del Rios.
And it's not because these patients are irresponsible, according to Del Rios; many had no option but to continue going into work without having proper protection available.
On the other hand, Del Rios has also seen the effects of people who flout safety measures, believing they won't get sick.
"I'm seeing unfold all the flaws of our society," said Del Rios, who purposely hasn't seen her 80-year-old mother in a year for reasons of safety.
What separates COVID-19 from other viruses, such as the flu, is that there is a real risk in the virus being transmitted from patients to staff, as well as hospital staff carrying the virus into their homes. COVID-19 is also unpredictable.
"I've seen 20-year-olds that have had to end up on ventilators," said Del Rios.
Last month Del Rios became the first person in Chicago to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The experience of receiving the inaugural jab, she called, "surreal."
"A lot of things went through my mind," Del Rios recalled.
She felt honored to be there, as well as somewhat undeserving, despite dealing with the virus directly and daily, because she had not contracted it herself. Del Rios felt hopeful for the future.
Understanding that Black and Brown communities have been hit inordinately hard by COVID-19, Del Rios, who is Puerto Rican, knew what her presence represented.
"I felt a sense of responsibility, sitting there and showing folks that I'm willing to be one of the first and I'm not scared. I believe in science," said Del Rios.
Del Rios has volunteered to become a vaccine ambassador through the Illinois Department of Public Health to educate people on the vaccination and encourage them to get immunized.
"The vaccine is a good thing," said Del Rios. "And it means that we can play offense now against this virus, when for the longest time, we were playing defense."
Stacey Sheridan, Staff Reporter
Cookbook author and youth philanthropist
Current Oak Park and River Forest High School freshman and author of "Quarantine Cookbook," Cat Nickles, turned her comic-inspired recipe quintet into a fundraising force that garnered national attention in 2020.
When the pandemic foiled the young food-lover's plans to open a pop-up restaurant at the Children's School as part of her eighth-grade capstone project, Nickles pivoted and created a cookbook to sell as a fundraiser for Beyond Hunger. She did not set a price for her book and hoped a "pay-what-you-can" model would help her raise $1,000.
Before long Nickles' book had generated more than $5,000 and earned an invitation to appear as a "Helping Hero" on a socially-distant broadcast of Live with Kelly and Ryan.
While on the show, the young writer and illustrator discussed her recipe for 8-second s'mores and detailed her fundraising success. At the end of the segment co-host Ryan Seacrest announced Live with Kelly and Ryan and Safeguard were making a $5,000 donation to Beyond Hunger.
"I thought this would just be a small project," said Nickles. "But I have learned that small action can make a big difference."
To date Nickles' cookbook sales have raised just shy of $19,000 for the Oak Park food pantry and she is committed to making it to $20,000 in 2021. She is expanding her recipe collection to increase donation potential and is considering the creation of a second book. In the meantime, Nickles has taken on an internship with Mama Kat's Sweets to hone her skills and has been offering virtual cooking classes to raise additional funds for Beyond Hunger.
Melissa Elsmo, Oak Park Eats
ICU patients 'terrified. We have to be strong for them'
It's been a difficult year for nurse Andrea Sanchez, who has been working in the COVID-19 subunit of Rush Oak Park Hospital's intensive care ward since March.
"Emotionally, mentally and physically, it has been hard on me," Sanchez said.
Sanchez even had to move out of her parents' home this year to protect them from contracting the virus, while she cared for hundreds of COVID-19 patients.
"It's exhausting but these patients need you," she said. "That's what keeps me going."
Sanchez recalls two bright spots during the otherwise bleak year of 2020. The first was a day in March, when the hospital began rolling patients in very critical condition onto their stomachs in a process known as proning. Prior to that, those patients were being transferred to Rush University Medical Center on the Near West Side.
"Proning helps the patients have a better outcome. It helps their lungs expand so they get more oxygen," said Sanchez.
The process requires the entire ICU staff. Patients, some even paralyzed, are manually rolled over and a respiratory therapist must be at the bedside. Nurses in other departments were called in to help.
The other bright spot of the year was a day in August when the ICU had no new COVID-19 cases. But the lull didn't last. In October, the hospital lost five patients to COVID-19 in one single day. Sanchez called that day the worst of the year.
"These patients are terrified, and you just have to be strong for them."
Stacey Sheridan, Staff Reporter
Mike Charley & Cara Pavlicek
Front line on Oak Park's COVID response
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek and former Public Health Director Mike Charley led the village of Oak Park's COVID response efforts in 2020. While Pavlicek kept the village running, Charley juggled mitigation measures, contact tracing and issuance of health orders, written by Village Attorney Paul Stephanides.
"There was a period of time that most of us were working seven days a week, way over our eight-hour days," said Charley, who left Oak Park in November to serve the village of Skokie.
A key member of the village's response team, according to Charley, is Stephanides, who writes all of the public health orders.
The breakneck pace lasted months into the pandemic, with the village responding to inquiries from other taxing bodies, as well as implementing safety guidelines and communicating information to the public. Charley called the initial months "overwhelming," but felt that he, at the end of each day, did everything in his capability to serve Oak Park residents.
"Certain public health decisions aren't always popular with everybody," said Charley. "But they were meant to stop the spread of the virus and it's not always easy."
Charley thanked the village board for supporting COVID-19 measures, as well as giving him and Pavlicek the authority to make decisions.
"If we didn't have the support from them," said Charley, "we couldn't have moved as quickly on COVID as we did."
Stacey Sheridan, Staff Reporter
Imperfect but ambitious response to hunger
Running a food pantry during a pandemic has been daunting and logistically challenging says Michele Zurakowski, executive director of Beyond Hunger, 848 Lake St. in Oak Park. The key to successfully navigating COVID-19, however, has been firmly rooted in Zurakowski's expectation of imperfection.
"We knew we would make mistakes," said Zurakowski. "I led with the notion of trying new things. We knew we wouldn't be perfect, but we would all debrief, make modifications, and try again."
Under Zurakowski's leadership in 2020 Beyond Hunger shifted its in-person shopping experience to a drive-thru/walk-up model designed to mitigate health risks while still getting healthy food into the hands of people who needed it most.
Additionally, Beyond Hunger tripled the size of its home delivery program dedicated to providing food to people who could not otherwise get to the pantry. Creative thinking in the face of increasing need led to a collaboration with Oak Park Township. The expansion of Beyond Hunger's delivery program was hampered by driving needs, but the township allowed the pantry to utilize its vehicles and drivers to deliver food to those in need.
"Our staff and volunteers were willing to do whatever it took to make a difference in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19," said Zurakowski. "I see this honor as a reflection of the incredible effort my team has put forth."
Though Beyond Hunger anticipates an avalanche of need in 2021, Zurakowski remains confident the community will continue to rally around people facing food insecurity.
Melissa Elsmo, Oak Park Eats
Rousing neighbors to help seniors
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced shut-downs in March, River Forest resident Helen Kwan's immediate concern was the older residents in town and how they would be impacted. Would they be able to get groceries? What about prescriptions? How would they stay safe?
"We need to think about the seniors," was her first thought, and she talked to village President Cathy Adduci about how to ensure everyone's needs were being met.
Kwan, who has a master's degree in geriatric social work and has participated in lobbying and advocacy in the healthcare arena, formed the River Forest COVID-19 Senior Taskforce, which coordinated with River Forest Township senior services.
She put out word to the seniors that services were available, and she put out a call for volunteers. With the help of over 125 residents, ranging in age from 16 to 80, Kwan and her team provided grocery shopping, prescription pick-up, and later other services, such as library-book pick-up and drop-off, for seniors in town.
In the beginning of the pandemic, when masks were in short supply, Kwan started the River Forest Mask Brigade. The group made and distributed over 3,000 masks for the community, including vulnerable residents in and around town.
Kwan's task force met other needs too. When a large amount of hand sanitizer was donated, she put out the word that she was looking for containers to distribute it in smaller amounts. And people donated containers. For a while, there was a shortage of alcohol swabs for diabetics and other medical needs, and when she put out the call for some, people came through.
"It was a difficult time, but also a wonderful time, to see how the community stepped up," Kwan said. "It takes a village to take care of a village."
Maria Maxham, Staff Reporter
Rob and Susan Parks and the Noble Army
Volunteers use 3D printers to make face shields
Robert Parks was sitting at home watching WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" when he saw a segment on an engineer who used a 3D printer to make face shields for first responders. Parks, who owned a 3D printer himself, found the design online, started to experiment and ran with it.
Since then, Parks, his wife, Susan, and a group of 45 locals who own 3D printers have created 11,269 face shields for hospitals, nursing homes and first responders. They call themselves the "Noble Army" and, at one point, were receiving over 200 requests a day for their product.
"I am so proud of this group and its determination," said Parks back in May. "We are running it like a business and we want to keep this operation going. The public has come through so beautifully where we are now in the black again."
Outside of the Noble Army's efforts creating face shields, Parks created a 37-page Google document containing all the information it takes to start an operation similar to his so other people with 3D printers can make shields. It included the costs for creating the product, how to organize a team and find institutions who were in need of face shields.
In a time when resources were scarce and first responders needed someone to look out for them, Parks and his army of 45 people were there to answer the call.
James Kay, staff reporter
Creator of Takeout 25 Oak Park
When Ravi Parakkat, current candidate for Oak Park village trustee, crunched the numbers to help local Oak Park restaurants survive the COVID winter on the horizon he was not sure his simple formula would resonate with residents. The Takeout 25 initiative, launched in mid-November, however, inspired thousands of residents to do their part to help local eateries.
The movement compels residents to spend $25 per week on carryout fare in Oak Park and the surrounding communities. Despite a few growing pains and contentious posts, the Takeout 25 Oak Park Facebook page remains largely positive and solution oriented. The page boasts more than 6,000 members who share photos of takeout fare, ask for dinner recommendations, and interact with restaurant owners.
Restaurant owners have made it clear the Takeout 25 Oak Park initiative is making a difference — some establishments have been able to rehire furloughed employees while others have created special offers and discounts specifically geared toward the Takeout 25 community.
Though Parakkat's focus remains local, the Takeout 25 model is now being replicated on a national scale with similar efforts popping up from California to New York.
"This is totally unexpected, and I thank the WJ for this honor," said Parakkat, "I accept this on behalf of the Takeout 25 core team and would like to dedicate this to our community which quickly rallied to support our local restaurants while inspiring other communities across America to do the same."
Melissa Elsmo, Oak Park Eats
Farmers Market plowed new ground in COVID year
Once farmers markets were deemed essential in Illinois, Colleen McNichols, Oak Park Farmers Market manager, went to work with a team of village officials including Cameron Davis, Mindy Agnew, Cara Pavlicek, and Mike Charley to create a COVID compliant market.
"In a year when nourishment was never so needed, it was my pleasure to help this team effort to support market vendors, some of whom are fifth generation farmers," said McNichols. "We never could have pulled this off without the existing village infrastructure."
McNichols and her team of staff, volunteers, commissioners, and farmers, relocated the market over three continuous blocks to allow for proper social distancing. The market hosted 27 vendors and a single point of entrance at Lake and Scoville. Over 23 weeks, the market welcomed 60,000 in-person shoppers.
More than 50 volunteers made the market a success in its 45th season. Commissioners Rachel Hahs and Robin Schirmer donated 300 hours of their time to execute the first ever virtual market designed to reach individuals most at risk for COVID-19 complications.
The virtual market sold over $127,723 in local products with farmers and volunteers filling 2,300 orders for nearly 500 shoppers. Additionally, under McNichol's leadership the modified Oak Park Farmers Market completed more than $14,000 in LINK sales, donated 920 pounds of perishable food to Beyond Hunger, and composted 690 pounds of market waste.
"Having finished this challenging season intact, it is clear that villagers will never allow this market to fail," said McNichols.
Melissa Elsmo, Oak Park Eats
Getting government to take the virus seriously
Josh Vanderberg received the most "Villager of the Year" nominations by readers in 2020 for starting the "Oak Park Coronavirus Citizen Response" Facebook group. Since the group's March 11 creation, it has amassed over 4,000 members.
"I did not expect it to get that big," said Vanderberg, who decided to create the group to foster fact-based discussions about the COVID-19 response efforts in Oak Park with the goal of establishing more protective health measures quickly.
"The original purpose of the group was really focusing on getting the local government and our government entities to take the pandemic seriously," said Vanderberg.
He also wanted a central, virtual location dedicated entirely to COVID-19, instead of taking over other popular citizen groups on Facebook. The public status of the group allows each member the ability to post virus data and share articles, with Vanderberg and another member moderating.
"I was hoping to form a community and disseminate information that would make our local community move faster."
The purpose of the group has shifted with time. The group is now more about information-sharing rather than support, according to Vanderberg. Periodically debates spark within the group, such as whether or not schools should return to in-person learning and at what level.
"Those sorts of debates really reveal some pretty wide divisions," he said.
Vanderberg believes the group has become "a little bit more pragmatic" about what can be feasibly accomplished regarding the pandemic.
"We've learned over time that there's only so much the government can do to keep us safe."
Advocating for small business during COVID
It has been a tough year for business, especially small businesses. That's what has been on the mind of Liz Holt, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has worked during the COVID-19 pandemic to expand services to the business community, albeit services that look for different than in the past.
"My business is to look after other businesses," she said.
Holt helped the chamber pivot operations from in-person gatherings to events held virtually or outdoors with attendees safely distanced. The chamber increased communication with businesses to circulate important information regarding COVID-19, as well as ramped up advocacy efforts in Oak Park and River Forest.
"Making sure that businesses had a voice at the table became one of our most paramount things for the year," said Holt. "And I think we're most proud of that."
A direct result of the chamber's advocacy was the creation of the village of Oak Park's business recovery taskforce which includes chamber members, village trustees, businessowners and the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation.
Through public comments, the chamber provided to the Oak Park village board itemized and comprehensive support requests from the business community, including marketing plans and protection guidelines.
In River Forest, village government has begun greater efforts to promote local businesses in newsletters and on their website.
"They're thinking more about what it means to be supporting their businesses and that is one good thing that has come out of COVID for River Forest," said Holt.
Holt called 2020 the most challenging year of her career.
"I just really do feel an incredible responsibility to the people that I serve."
Stacey Sheridan, Staff Reporter
Keeps kids marching, remotely, at OPRF
While many in education have gone the extra mile during the pandemic, performing arts teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School have really stood out. Anthony Svejda, director of bands, is one of those teachers, and by doing what he loves, has created positive, memorable experiences for students in music.
This summer, he carefully researched how to safely assemble 100-plus musicians for a modified fall Marching Band season outside on the grounds of OPRF. With the support of Patrick Pearson (orchestra teacher) and Drew Fredrickson (band/choir teacher) the group met twice a week and created a video performance, edited by Fredrickson.
The fall semester work of curricular bands, orchestras and choirs, which includes some 400 students, culminated in the complex editing of individual student recordings (with the aid of an outside editor along with the teachers) into a virtual performance – the annual Prisms of Winter concert.
To get there, motivating students and helping them work through the many variables of home life were among the biggest challenges, Svejda said, who is an Oak Park resident and has taught music at OPRF for 16 years. Svejda's humorous stories told in class are legendary and he's not beyond wearing something funny to lighten the mood. He and Fredrickson took microphones and used those to engage students in a podcast-style class, too.
While Svedja brought the idea of Prisms of Winter to OPRF nine years ago in answer to low attendance at concerts, the 2020 concert was a collaboration of the high school's music department – Meredith McGuire (choir), Svejda, Pearson and Fredrickson. Since its inception, audiences have grown so much that a second night was necessary as shows were regularly selling out.
Besides teaching three curricular bands and Jazz Ensemble that meets daily before period 1, Svejda also has kept extra curriculars going – Jazz Band II and Pep Band, which is working on a promotional album in lieu of playing at basketball games.
Michelle Dybal, Arts Editor
Bringing emotional healing to young women of color
Since March, Oak Park students have been learning remotely from home — a reality that has widened the gap between Oak Park's haves and have-nots.
Remote learning, in particular, has complicated the lives of the village's low-income, disabled and minority students — which is where Dominique Hickman comes in.
Hickman founded Girls on the Rise while she was a youth interventionist with Oak Park Township. Since then, the organization has become a formal program within the township and Hickman was named Girls on the Rise supervisor for Oak Park and River Forest Township Youth Services.
Since Hickman founded it in 2017, Girls on the Rise has grown from an after-school group that focuses on helping Black and Brown girls develop their social and emotional skills, to a curriculum that's embedded during the day at both Brooks and Julian middle schools.
Last school year, Hickman said, she helped up to 60 Black and Brown girls navigate the drastic changes that the pandemic forced on their lives. The girls can log into a Zoom session with her, "get a snack, put their feet up, chill and just relate to each other," she said.
"I truly believe that for these girls, especially girls of color, the school environment has to be healing in order for them to learn," Hickman said.
Michael Romain, Staff Reporter
Rev. George Omwando
Keeping the parish running with short staff
While helping others in need during the pandemic, Rev. George Omwando has almost singlehandedly kept St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Parish running during 2020.
The already small staff was reduced last year, after a staff member died, a musician departed, and Omwando's associate pastor retired. With parishes consolidating, he feared if he hired replacements, they might end up losing their jobs.
"It is not right to hire a person if in one year he could lose his job," said Omwando.
In addition to taking on the responsibilities handled by staff, he has been navigating guidelines, streaming services online and working with banks to secure loans. He's been counseling overwhelmed parishioners, who have reached out more frequently than before the pandemic.
And he still finds time to help neighbors, allowing people to use the church's address to have food delivered when their own homes are outside a restaurant's delivery area.
"As long as they tell me in advance. Otherwise, if they deliver the food and I'm hungry, I'm going to eat it," Omwando said with a smile.
He has dipped into the rectory's food supply to feed hungry neighbors in Austin. However, he had to make some difficult decisions in the name of safety, such as limiting the number of people who can attend funerals, which he finds not easy to do.
"I've made a lot of decisions that were not popular, but in the long run, these decisions are good."
Leading Housing Forward in new directions
Housing Forward, under the leadership of Executive Director Lynda Schueler, has had to pivot hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with determination and passion, Schueler has redefined the way the nonprofit helps its clients.
The overnight shelter model simply wasn't going to work during the pandemic, so Housing Forward found empty hotel rooms in Oak Park and neighboring areas for its clients. That, in turn, led to a change in the way the organization provides services.
"Hotel room space provided so many solutions," said Schueler. "Our population is already traumatized by being homeless. The hotel rooms offer our clients their own feeling of stability. It allows them to really focus on their goals. They have a place to keep their belongings and not have to stuff them behind bushes. It allows them and us to see beyond their immediate crisis."
This new model, heavily underwritten with federal dollars from the CARES Act and much of it funneled through the village of Oak Park, resulted in the bold step of Housing Forward signing a one-year lease for all the rooms at the pandemic-shuttered Write Inn on Oak Park Avenue.
"It's a huge, huge deal," said Schueler. And it was reinforced in August when the Housing Forward board voted to adopt the 24/7 interim housing model as its principal means of housing the homeless.
"This year we have learned a lot. Like wow. A lot," she said. "What we are doing is really making a difference."
Answer Book 2019
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