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Chicago migrants get winter respite at a volunteer-run donation center

For migrants facing Chicago's bone-chilling winter for the first time, the expansive center in Oak Park, Illinois, offers vital support.
Chicago migrants get winter respite at a volunteer-run donation center
Posted at 3:49 PM, Jan 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-19 16:50:33-05

It's almost like a department store. It has three large rooms neatly filled with donated clothing, blankets and shoes. And it's all organized by size and gender.

Twice a week, a former Catholic school in suburban Chicago turns into a giant donation center and canteen for migrants who get to select and try on whatever they want.

"We really feel strongly about donations with dignity," said 70-year-old Celine Woznica, the lead coordinator. She manages an army of volunteers who spend all week sorting through truckloads of donation boxes to ensure timely restocking — especially of winter items.

"Coats, blankets and boots are what we are going through the most," Woznica explained.

As a devout Catholic, Woznica says she is following the Gospel's call to action. The center is sponsored by the Catholic parishes of Oak Park, Illinois.

But Woznica says among the 350 people who have volunteered at one time or another, there are people of all faiths, or no faith at all.

Asked what she would tell people arguing that the U.S. should help U.S. citizens first, Woznica replied: "It shouldn't be either/or. It should be both. We don't get into the politics. This is just meeting the needs of our migrant brothers and sisters."

For migrants not used to Chicago's brutal winters, her center is a beacon of warmth.

"From stockings to underwear, coat, hat — they help us with whatever we need," said Luz Enedieth Ramirez, a Colombian migrant who arrived in Chicago two weeks ago on a free bus ride from Texas.

She says the weather change was so severe that she was briefly hospitalized after catching a serious flu.

Currently staying inside a downtown shelter, Ramirez rode the "L" train for an hour to come to the donation center in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago.

For nearly two years, Democratic-led cities like New York, Denver and Chicago have grappled with a huge influx of migrants from the southern border, largely at the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Now, the cold weather is only complicating matters, as city leaders scramble to find enough winterized shelter for tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

In and around Chicago, officials have long relied on nonprofits and volunteers to provide essentials — a responsibility that could become unsustainable with more migrants arriving. 

But Woznica says she has faith. "The Lord said, whatever you have done for the least of my brethren you've done for me," Woznica said.

SEE MORE: Over 1,000 bats rescued in Houston area due to freezing cold


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