WAUKEGAN - CHICAGO TRIBUNE - Helping children is a passion for retirees Lizzy Helgren and Sandy Pearson of Gurnee, so volunteering at Waukegan-based Keeping Families Covered helps them feed their enthusiasm for youngsters and their families.
Keeping Families Covered — a not-for-profit organization which acquires and distributes primarily diapers, but other children’s needs like clothing and shoes, to needy Lake County families — is dealing with fewer volunteers and increased need because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Helgren, a longtime school nurse and Woodland School District 50 Board of Education member, has helped out at Keeping Families Covered for the last three years. It gets her back with young families.
“We hand them the package with the right size,” Helgren said. “Sometime there’s something extra, like a book from Bernie’s Book Bank or Bombas socks. You see the smiles on their faces. They often say, ‘God bless you.’”
Pearson, who taught kindergartners and first-graders at Shiloh Park School in Zion for 34 years, said the youngsters she helps volunteering remind her of the children she taught for so long.
“It’s very heartwarming to see their faces,” Pearson said. “These are like the kids I helped for 34 years. A lot of them are from the same community.”
Ann Marie Mathis, the founder and executive director of Keeping Families Covered as well as a Wadsworth resident, said the need has accelerated since March when the pandemic changed the way so many families do things. Many she already served had economic issues, and more came.
Mathis said purchasing and distributing diapers represents 85% of what her organization does. With nearly 1.1 million diapers handed out this year, it is approximately 35% more than was done a year ago.
Most of the diapers are purchased from donations the organization receives, but some packages are donated as well. Mathis said the bulk of the diapers are distributed through 37 community partners like the Lake County Health Department, the Family Resource Center, Kids Above All, Nicasa and others.
Once a case worker comes for the needed diapers and other supplies, Mathis said that person arranges for the distribution. Keeping Families Covered also does its own distribution at locations in Waukegan, Gurnee, Grayslake and Highwood.
Not only did the need for more diapers and other family needs grow after the onset of the pandemic, Mathis said the number of volunteers decreased primarily because some needed to stay at home away from others.
Until March, Mathis said the organization’s office and warehouse buzzed with volunteers sorting diapers, clothing, shoes, books and even the occasional stroller. After that, she had to rearrange the operation.
“It was a bit scary, but we were able to keep our doors open,” Mathis said. “We lost nearly half our team. None of them got sick. Some were 60-plus and high-risk. Some had medical conditions, and others were just fearful.”
With everyone wearing masks and washing frequently, Mathis said she reorganized the facility so work areas were at least six feet apart. When the volunteer base grew smaller, helpers like Pearson and Helgren started giving more time.
“Teachers retire at an earlier age,” Pearson said. “It was nice at the time. I’m able to do more so the older volunteers could stay home and stay safe. It wasn’t a problem for me.”
Mathis said she also had to shift distribution, from setting up a shop-like operation at places like the Gurnee Public Library and the Highwood Metra station to drive-through centers in parking lots. Now patrons drive into the lot, get a number and move ahead to receive a package with the appropriate-sized diapers.
Spending most of her adult life in the corporate world, Mathis said in 2010 she wanted to do something to help others. As the mother of seven children between the ages of 2 and 12, she knew the needs of families and started the organization in her basement.
Though today diapers are what she calls the flagship program of Keeping Families Covered, Mathis said she has always solicited donations of things like children’s bedding, blankets, clothing, shoes, car seats, high chairs, strollers and other items. Maternity clothing and women’s period supplies are also part of the mix.