Will County Center for Community Concerns — 25 years of caring
by tina akouris firstname.lastname@example.org November 11, 2012 8:22PM
Frankfort resident Gail Hernandez (center left) hugs Marla Ramos (center right), outreach coordinator and special projects manager, after Hernandez spoke about her experiences with the Will County Center for Community Concerns Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, at 304 N. Scott St. in Joliet. Executive director Kris White stands nearby (right). | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 13, 2012 10:18AM
Carol Lane would lie in bed at night and think.
She already beat cancer and survived two major surgeries in the process, but now she was on the brink of losing her home in Joliet.
“You think, ‘How am I going to pay for this? How am I going to keep this house?’ ” Lane said. “I surpassed (cancer) and now I’m laying in bed thinking, ‘I don’t want to give up now.’ ”
Lane was in the process of losing her home over the summer when her daughter told her to go to the Will County Center for Community Concerns in Joliet. There, she met counselor Pat Venziano.
“She got it rolling and it was like a snowball,” Lane said. “In a matter of four months she had everything taken care of. She was my voice. I sat back and gave her the reins and she went with it.
“Pat would tell me it takes a year or a year-and-a-half to do something like this. But it was only a matter of four or five months.”
Lane is one of many people who have benefitted from the center, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary in September. The center provides services to low-income individuals and families of Will County.
There are also about 20 outreach sites throughout Will County, and the largest is in Bolingbrook. The center also borrows space in township offices.
The center started in 1987 after the Will County Board decided there was a need for a community action agency to help low-income residents. Most of the services the center provides are paid for by the federal government, with some help coming from the state. Will County residents are eligible for programs based on their income levels.
But it wasn’t until the housing bubble blew up almost four years ago that the center saw its primary demographic change.
“It was 2008 where we saw an increase in the need for our services,” executive director Kris White said. “We started seeing people that we had never seen before, like people who had been working and had jobs who just got laid off. We’ve seen people who used to make six figures who still haven’t found a job. That’s what we’re really seeing in our housing programs.”
Before 2008, the center mainly saw senior citizens and the disabled, who were on fixed incomes and relied on Social Security.
“Now we’re seeing families who have no idea what they’re doing,” said Marla Ramos, the center’s outreach coordinator.
A busy time of year
This is the center’s busy season. White said Nov. 1 is when anyone is eligible to apply for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income residents pay their gas and electric bills.
The program, probably one of the most-used services at the center, has an enrollment period from September through May or until all the funding is used up.
Starting Sept. 1, senior citizens and the disabled could apply for funding. On Oct. 1, residents whose electricity or gas was already shut off could apply for help.
A few days after the Nov. 1 enrollment period began for the program, the center’s waiting room was practically full. White said the center usually helps about 125 clients a day.
But many more are served anyway, like those who make appointments with HUD-certified counselors who can assist with housing-related issues. The center also offers a fairly new program called Illinois Hardest Hit, which helps keep people in their homes if they are facing foreclosure.
“All of the programs interchange with each other and we try to get people involved in at least one of them if they are having housing problems,” Ramos said. “They can also just come in here and talk about what’s going on with their mortgage and then we can fit them in an appropriate program,” Ramos said.
Getting help with utility bills is what brought Frankfort residents Chris and Gail Hernandez into the center in the first place. But they left getting more than they expected.
Chris Hernandez suffered a work-related injury in August 2006 when he worked installing fire protection sprinkler systems as a member of the Sprinkler Fitters of Chicago Local 281. Hernandez had several surgeries, was cut off by his workman’s compensation insurance and was staring foreclosure right in the face.
“We came in here looking for assistance for our gas and electric (bills),” Chris Hernandez said. “During the conversation with one of the employees here, (HUD counselor) Vicki McDonald overheard and told us about the Illinois Hardest Hit program.”
The couple filled out the necessary paperwork. Within about four months, McDonald called and said the foreclosure was off the table.
“He handed me the phone and I thought, ‘Oh, no,’ because I’m so used to bad news,” Gail Hernandez said. “But she told me the news and I just fell to the floor and started crying. Vicki is our angel.”
Libby Thompson of Joliet had problems paying her mortgage, too, and was referred to the center. She surmised it would take a while to get her financial situation straightened out, but the process happened so fast she was happily surprised.
“I had no idea (how long the process would take), and I was only going by what my cousin was saying since she has been going through something like this for two years,” Thompson said. “It took only about eight weeks.”
Thompson had previously used the center for help with her utility bills. This time, though, it was all about the mortgage and trying not to lose her house like so many others in Will County.
“Foreclosures in Will County were extremely high, and, at one point, we were No. 2 in foreclosures in the state,” White said.
Tug on heartstrings
White and Ramos have heard many stories over the years, but certain ones have made an impact.
White said the center recently started helping a single woman in her 40s who is unemployed and is living out of her car with her two pets. White said the center is working on getting the woman into an apartment, a process somewhat hastened because the woman’s car broke down.
“We fixed her car and got some insurance for her car, and we’re just about ready to get her moved into an apartment,” White said. “That one always makes me tear up.”
Ramos, though, has a soft spot for senior citizens, who remind Ramos of her grandmother.
“I have a few that are homebound and others that only rely on me,” Ramos said. “I get them the LIHEAP help and I’m like their middle man. I try and watch over them.”
Or, as White put it: “If there’s a senior out there, Marla is going to make sure she helps them.”