Faces of volunteers: They provide more than donations and shelter to migrants in Chicago. They give love

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — The buses had just begun to arrive at Union Station that hot and sticky night in August when Ricky Flores heard from an activist friend that a group of asylum-seekers had nowhere to go.

Flores sped to the station in his black and red Rammer truck, with speakers blaring music, followed by friends in other trucks, all ready to help transport the migrants to the first shelter that the city had quickly assembled.

But police told the migrants to wait: A city representative would take them to the shelter. So Flores and his friends waited, too, assuring the migrants in broken Spanish that if no one arrived, they would provide food and shelter for them.

As they waited, they shared phone numbers, laughter and cigarettes with the migrants. And over a single puff, the group forgot the uncertainty of their future on their first night in Chicago after crossing several borders, mostly all the way from Venezuela.

Flores stood by their side until the migrants were picked up. And he is still by their side.

Flores is one of the countless Chicagoans who have stepped up since August to help the migrants, going beyond assisting them with basic needs such as shelter, food and clothes — also making them feel welcome. The volunteers have celebrated birthdays, organized cookouts, provided free therapy services, driven migrants to doctor appointments and job interviews and helped them access showers.

The volunteers, parents who work full-time jobs, artists and even doctors, can be found at city- and community-run shelters and police stations, filling the gaps left by the city and state as government officials grapple with the lack of funding, resources and shelter space for the more than 10,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived since August.

For the migrants, people like Flores, a roofer by trade, are more than just volunteers: They’re friends.

“Ricky, Ricky!” yelled a young boy on a recent Wednesday afternoon as he rode his bike toward Flores outside the makeshift shelter that Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, erected in the Pilsen neighborhood with the help of neighbors and advocates in the area.

“¿Cuándo vas a traer a tus hijos a jugar conmigo otra vez?” he said, asking Flores in Spanish when he planned to bring his children to play with him again.

Flores smiled. “Maybe later,” he told the boy in Spanish and began walking with him.

Flores said he sees himself in the migrants, especially in the children. When he was a child, his mother left his abusive father, and they had no place to live. They jumped from shelter to shelter.

That is why, aside from ensuring that migrants are fed and sheltered, he goes out of the way to make sure that they also feel loved. Now a father himself, he said he wants his three children — who he said inspired him to leave the “street life” behind — to be proud of what he’s doing.

“I want them to be proud of their dad,” he said. “To learn to help and love others.”

Since befriending the migrants, Flores has called on his “homies” to collect donations, including air mattresses and blankets for the children. He’s organized haircuts for the men and boys. Once, he brought a local Dominican rapper to a shelter in Pilsen to entertain the migrants. He occasionally grills for them while blasting music. “All the migrants are invited,” he said.

When he set up the grill at Piotrowski Park a few days after a temporary respite center opened there earlier this month, both migrants and neighbors joined the cookout, he recalled. And just last week, he helped to organize a birthday party for all the children and the migrants whose lives have been solely focused on surviving, forgetting the beauty of life, he said.

Ese Ricky sí es buena persona,” said Lady Alvarez, a migrant from Venezuela.

Flores has worked side by side with Delilah Martinez, an artist by trade, who put a pause to her gallery’s daily operations to respond to the needs of the migrants throughout the city.

They began to collaborate shortly after the first wave of asylum-seekers arrived and share the core values of love and empathy.

She quickly turned her business, Vault Gallery in Pilsen, into a place to ask for support for the migrants. Since then, she has not stopped.

Even on days she feels helpless — especially for the mothers — she keeps going, Martinez said.

Along with Flores, she has galvanized scores of people, local sports teams, brands and more to donate essentials for asylum-seekers who were forced to sleep on floors. Thanks to donors, Martinez bought new air mattresses, blankets and pillows to equip the shelter in Pilsen.

She has collected school supplies and backpacks for the children and proper work boots for adults.

Aquí voy a estar,” a migrant told Martinez. He had told her that he needed the boots to start work the next day, so he was waiting for them.

Throughout the past few months, Martinez said she heard migrants randomly mention it was their birthday, sometimes as a response of appreciation for a donation, or a good meal. Most times, she said, she would bring cupcakes, but she said they deserved something better.

So she organized a birthday celebration, inviting all the migrants in the Pilsen shelter. There were burgers and hot dogs, a piñata and a cake, as well as live music from a local band that donated two hours of their time.

“I just want to show them love and compassion,” Martinez said.

The children were ecstatic, each taking a chance to hit the piñata while their parents watched.

“For a moment, we forget what is going on,” said Wiliagny Benitez, a mother of three who attended the party.

That is Martinez’s goal, to help them feel loved and welcome and a part of a community, to feel like the bad moment will not be forever, she said.

At least that’s what she hopes.

But for some migrants sleeping on the bare floors of police stations across the city, the days can feel long and hopeless.

Some have been there for more than two weeks waiting, though few know exactly for what or for whom.

So when Heather Kofke-Egger arrives at the station, some feel relief. The mom of two has dedicated the past weeks to visiting all 22 district police stations, checking on migrants, distributing donations bringing medication, toilet paper and undergarments — the latter essential since none of the migrants have daily access to a washing machine or a shower.

“It’s those little things,” she said. Their health, she said, is her biggest concern. The migrants are exhausted, distressed and malnourished.

Last week, she drove Norkys Amaro to a doctor appointment after she was transferred with her children from a police station to the 7th District station.

Amaro said she fell and hurt her arm during her journey to Chicago from Venezuela and has been in constant pain since.

Kofke-Egger said that if she didn’t take Amaro to her appointment, “no else would.”

She is the head volunteer of the 25th District, but some stations far south have fewer people available, she said.

Es el cumpleaños de mi hijo hoy,” a migrant mother said to Kofke-Egger as she approached her. “It’s my son’s birthday.”

Kofke-Egger sent a message to her volunteer network so that someone could stop by later that day to drop off a small cake for them.

She is a part of the Chicago Police Station Response Team, a network of volunteers from all over the city who tend to the migrants who are forced to shelter in police stations. They provide hot homemade meals, blankets and help them keep track of the number they need to ensure they’re in line to eventually land a spot in a city-run shelter.

The group grew out of a Facebook group that started when Afghan and Ukrainians refugees arrived in the city. In recent weeks, it has gone from about 300 members to more than 700.

Tienen buen corazón,” said Francis Melendres, a woman sitting at a station with her 8-year-old daughter by her side. “They have a good heart.”

They had been at the police station for more than 10 days.

“I’m so grateful, because not everyone does this for us,” she added in Spanish.

On a recent afternoon, Heather Nichols, another member of the response team, arrived at the 11th District to pick up migrants who wanted to shower at a pop-up shower site.

They had been at the station for nine days. For some, it was their first shower in several days, Nichols said.

She got involved with the team just a little over three weeks ago after attending a community briefing about the thousands of migrants arriving in Chicago. Her background in mutual aid inspired her to get involved. And though she doesn’t speak Spanish, she also uses her phone as a translator.

“It’s been three weeks. But it feels like much longer,” she said.

The shower trailer is run by ShowerUp, an organization that provides mobile shower units for homeless populations. Men and women took turns entering the shower trailer with soap and towels, and emerging with wet hair.

“My mother’s an immigrant, so I sympathize with all these people,” said Christian Peyret, regional director of ShowerUp, who was born and raised on the South Side, where he now lives.

“We talk to them about their journey and about life,” he said. “Everyone has a different perspective. We learn from them and they learn from us.”

ShowerUp offers showering services on Mondays and Thursdays in Little Village. Peyret said he is happy to provide a central location for migrants in police stations.

He started at the organization two months ago, just as ShowerUp was beginning to respond to the surge of migrants from Texas. It’s hard for ShowerUp to plan ahead, he said, because the situation fluctuates every day.

The migrants thanked Peyret and his assistants, Rafael Rodriguez and Olga Cosme. Some hugged the volunteers.

“They’re always super grateful. They try to help us in small ways too,” said Peyret.

The efforts of hundreds who have stepped up “is the least we can do when officials don’t step up,” said Susie Moya, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist, psychologist who initially started by helping a family with a baby that was staying in the 9th District police station.

After meeting the family, she went home and could not sleep thinking of them and their baby having to sleep on the floor. She could see the trauma and pain they were experiencing in their eyes.

Moya, who is a mother of a 2-year-old, cried as she recalled the moment she stepped in the station.

She thought to herself: “There’s gotta be something else I can do.”

Many of the women have shared with her their traumatic journey — stories of sexual assault, losing a loved one and the separation of families — so Moya began a support group for women based out of the shelter in Pilsen, offering free therapy.

She hopes that through her work, “they can feel seen and heard,” Moya said. “So they feel that there are people who care for them and their future.”

Many often overlook the trauma the asylum-seekers have experienced through their journey to Chicago and the everyday turmoil that living in shelter can bring. The children and women appear to be the most affected, said Moya, who runs Embrace Corazón Counseling at 1942 S. Halsted St. in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Martinez said migrants need support and encouragement to end their journey by finding jobs and settling in Chicago.

“They’re not here to just collect donations,” she said.