About a month ago, Frank Schmeda started noticing groups of people waiting outside an office building across the street from his house.
He was spending more time at home after an injury from work. He soon learned the people were migrants seeking assistance from a state resource office.
While holding a garage sale one weekend, he gave away clothes to any of the migrants who stopped by his front yard. He realized that most had very few belongings, so he set up a table with a sign saying “gratis,” meaning free in Spanish, and began leaving out clothes and shoes every day.
“It turned into more of, not a charity, but more of a necessity,” Schmeda said. “I’m not trying to be a hero; it’s just this is what’s happening right in front of me. How could I not do something?”
He lives in Forest Glen. An Illinois Department of Human Services office is across the street from his home. Since he put the table out, he estimates hundreds of people have come by to pick things up.
“It’s devastating what they’ve gone through, and I’m in a position where I can help,” Schmeda said. “There’s more people by the day who are coming. And I’ve never seen people more gracious to get something so basic.”
Maiter Jose Olivera stopped by Schmeda’s table with his family Thursday morning. They have been in Chicago for about a month after fleeing Venezuela.
Their journey to Chicago took two months, and they arrived in the city with only the clothes on their backs, Olivera said.
“We have nothing. We had to leave everything behind before crossing the border,” Olivera said in Spanish.
Olivera and his wife, María Chirimoya, came to the DHS office to apply for a financial assistance program. Olivera has been able to find work as a painter. They’re staying at Daley College now but hope to find an apartment soon.
“This is very excellent. It’s magnificent to try and help people who don’t have anything,” Olivera said of the free table.
Their 8-year-old son, Miguel Olivera, enjoyed one of the free sodas Schmeda left out in a cooler, boasting that he could easily drink four more. Luisary Morles, their 11-year-old daughter, picked out a frilly black dress from the stacks of clothes.
Schmeda is running out of his own clothes to give away. He recently started putting out collared shirts in case any of the men need them for job interviews. He’s getting women’s and children’s clothes from friends.
“I can see, right there, people who are in need. It’s right in front of me. I could draw my blinds and hide and look the other way, or I can be proactive and do my part,” Schmeda said.
He got the idea to put out a cooler with beverages after a man and his son asked if they could fill a plastic container with water from his hose.
“That was pretty humbling. I think that warrants a couple cold bottles of water from my fridge,” Schmeda said. “I watched him pour the water over his kid’s head to cool him off. It definitely made me think, let’s take care of this.”
He’ll eventually go back to his job at the Forest Preserve, but he said he has no intention of packing the table up. He’s already thinking ahead to colder months and gathering coats and sweaters.“Hopefully, it’ll work out down the road for them. But we know this isn’t going to stop overnight,” Schmeda said.
“They need a helping hand, and I’m doing what I can because I can.”