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As needs ‘skyrocket,’ nonprofits adapt to help struggling families

GURNEE – DAILY HERALD - In demand more than ever, nonprofit organizations throughout Lake County are doing their part to feed the needs of families.

They’ve adapted their distribution methods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are partnering to tackle the crisis.

“Now that the whole state is shut down basically, it’s made the number of people who can’t afford groceries skyrocket,” said Elizabeth Gartman, communications manager for Northern Illinois Food Bank. “It’s just been overwhelming.”

To accommodate that need, Northern Illinois Food Bank now hosts drive-thru Pop-Up Markets to distribute food. The organization has helped more than 6,000 families since its first market in April. 

The sixth and most recent Pop-Up Market on May 9 in the parking lot of Six Flags Great America theme park in Gurnee drew more than 2,500 families. 

Roughly 200 volunteers wearing masks and gloves loaded fresh produce, dairy items, cereal and canned goods into the cars of anyone in need of food assistance. 

Those who attended were encouraged to reserve a pickup time through the food bank’s My Pantry Express website at, but no ID, proof of address or income was required to receive the food. 

Families in need also can call the organization’s SNAP hotline at 844-600-7627 to speak directly with a team member.

The May 9 Pop-Up Market also helped feed the minds of children. Books were handed out to families through a Northern Illinois Food Bank partnership with Lake Bluff-based Bernie’s Book Bank.

All families received what Bernie’s Book Bank calls “Family Fun Packs” – bags of six books for children ages birth through sixth grade – as part of the organization’s new Change Their Story program.

Created as a result of children affected due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Change Their Story at asks for donations of $12 to provide 12 books for an underserved child. 

The organization reached out to the Northern Illinois Food Bank when the pandemic began, said Darrin Utynek, chief executive officer of Bernie’s Book Bank.

“We’ve got a literacy crisis when we’re in good times, but these times have only exacerbated the problem even more,” he said. 

With children in remote learning environments, many don’t have regular access to books as they typically do in school, he said. The goal is to help narrow any gaps in learning, he said, and put books into the hands of children.

“This allows them not only to continue their literary journey, but it also provides a bit of escape when you’re trapped in your home,” Utynek said. “That’s what makes us really proud of the work we’re doing because we know there’s a need.”

Unable to call upon the organization’s usual 600 volunteers a month, Bernie’s Book Bank now relies on a team of 42 employees working within social distancing requirements to produce books at the organization’s processing center.

Since launching Change Their Story on March 20, the organization has distributed more than 200,000 free books to local underserved children. 

“That’s just an incredible production rate,” Utynek said. 

After working with Northern Illinois Food Bank for the first time May 9, the organization hopes to pair up for future events as well. Bernie’s Book Bank also has collaborated with Chicago Public Schools, Woman Infants and Children, North Chicago Community Partners and nonprofits such as Reach Out & Read and others. 

“I think a lot of nonprofits are suffering through this because funding has become an issue,” Utynek said.

Hosting a mobile diaper pantry at locations throughout Lake County, Waukegan-based Twice as Nice has seen the demand for diapers double as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ann Marie Mathis, the nonprofit organization’s founder and executive director.

Panic buying, hoarding, job loss and shelter-in-place orders have forced more families to turn to nonprofit diaper banks such as Twice as Nice, which is depleting available supplies, she said. Since March 18, Twice as Nice has received 541 new requests for help with diapers.

“We’re just doing everything we can to fulfill our mission of making sure the families have what they need,” Mathis said. “With other resources being shut down across the state, we’re just trying to keep our doors open.”

The organization also faces challenges due to supply shortages, delayed shipments and canceled orders, she said. And half of her 14-member team of volunteers has had to temporarily bow out due to health risks during the pandemic, she added.

Like Bernie’s Book Bank, the organization has collaborated with Northern Illinois Food Bank to get supplies to those in need. Mathis also has increased the number of mobile diaper pantry distributions. An upcoming distribution is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 20 in the parking lot of Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep school, 3106 Belvidere Road, Waukegan.

Families in need are required to register at least 24 hours before any distribution day at Visit the website for more information on future mobile diaper pantry distributions and locations, as well as how to get help, volunteer and donate. Both diapers and financial donations are sought. 

“I know how hard it can be to raise a child, especially when you don’t have the necessities,” Mathis said. “For me, it’s really about making a difference.”

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