Annual Homewood art project: Benches for Change support SSFS

By: Carole Sharwarko

HF Chronicle July 15, 2020

Colorful and conveniently placed benches have popped up around downtown Homewood, the 2020 incarnation of an annual art installation.

Benches for Changes is a program facilitated by Homewood Business Association that benefits South Suburban Family Shelter, a Homewood-based nonprofit organization that provides services to families experiencing domestic violence.

This year’s project follows previous ones that saw dogs on parade and Adirondack chairs, locally integrated art that benefitted South Suburban Humane Society and Cancer Support Center, respectively.

Julie Lawton, director of Homewood Business Association, said the organization planned a while ago to use the 2020 art installation to benefit SSFS.

“We told them last year that we wanted to work with them because it’s their 40-year anniversary,” said Lawton, who is co-owner of UpsaDaisy Boutique in Homewood.

Twenty-two unfinished benches were bought by businesses, organizations and individuals, who assembled and painted them with a theme of their choosing.

To make the benches durable for outdoor use, Homewood Auto Body donated time and material to seal each bench with the same clear coat it uses on cars. The business also sprayed the dogs and chairs of previous installations, protecting them from the natural elements.

“One of the biggest contributors for us is Scott (Saalman) from Homewood Auto Body,” Lawton said. “They have offered to spray the final coat on any art installation we do. It’s a very costly thing for him to do.”

After being enjoyed by visitors to Homewood’s downtown throughout the summer, the benches will be auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting SSFS. Previous auctions were held at Homewood’s Fall Fest. Since the fate is uncertain for that event for this year, the auction will be tied in with SSFS’s annual gala in October.

While the two-seater benches encourage connection between people, Lawton said that can be tricky during a time when COVID restrictions keep us apart. However, someone can sit with a family member or a close friend for a chat, or sit alone for quiet reflection.

“You’re welcome to sit on the benches. We want people to sit on them and enjoy them,” Lawton said. “It’s nice to stop and just think about life and the wonderful experiences you have with the people closest to you.”

Jewish volunteer group collects carloads of meals for families in need

By: Carole Sharwarko

H-F Chronicle July 10, 2020

Volunteers unloaded bags of food so that donors could stay inside their air conditioned cars on a sultry Wednesday morning, during a food collection for South Suburban Family Shelter.

The event was organized by the local group of Juf Tikkun Olam Network of Volunteers (TOV) within the Jewish United Fund. About a half-dozen volunteers stood in front of South Suburban Vineyard Church in Flossmoor, welcoming locals who signed up to put together food for a meal.

Volunteers Sarah Goldman, from left, Tracey Levy and Aaron Latman sort donated food in front of South Suburban Vineyard Church in Flossmoor. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)
Volunteers Sarah Goldman, from left, Tracey Levy and Aaron Latman sort donated food in front of South Suburban Vineyard Church in Flossmoor. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

TOV requested that donors bring a full complement of ingredients to create one entire meal of either breakfast, lunch or dinner. They offered sample menus:

  • Breakfast: Box of pancake mix, bottle of syrup, jar of peanut butter, jar of jam, two cans of fruit
  • Lunch: Box of rice, two cans of pinto beans, can of diced tomatoes, can of corn, package of fruit cups
  • Dinner: Two boxes of pasta, two jars of pasta sauce, two cans of vegetables, two cans of beans, jar of applesauce

“Because of COVID, many different organizations and food pantries are shut down, and families in need aren’t getting the same kind of help,” said Amy Bloomberg, a volunteer who organizes south suburban activities for JUF.

The food was destined for the kitchens of SSFS clients. The organization, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, provides comprehensive services to families experiencing domestic violence.

Food drive participants signed up to donate a certain number of meals, Bloomberg said, and the list included more than 100 meals committed.

However, volunteer Aaron Latman said quite a few people pulled up with cars holding more than promised — whole trunkloads of food, said the junior at H-F High School.

Latman said he volunteers often around Homewood and Flossmoor, collecting needed service hours while getting a sense of satisfaction by helping the community.

“I’ve helped SSFS out as a volunteer in the past, so this is not my first rodeo,” Latman said. “It’s just two hours; I’m more than happy to help.”

Volunteers braved hot temperatures on Wednesday morning to collect food for South Suburban Family Shelter. (Provided photo)
Volunteers braved hot temperatures on Wednesday morning to collect food for South Suburban Family Shelter. (Provided photo)

Latman and other volunteers unloaded grocery bags from the drive-by donors, then sorted the items into paper sacks lined up on the grass. The bags teetered, filled with jars of peanut butter, bottles of syrup and canned vegetables, beans and meat — important protein, Bloomberg said.

Volunteer Tracey Levy said she heard about the food drive from Bloomberg, and was excited to participate in a local nonprofit event. She’s a member of the Society of Women Engineers and also Junior League, and said she misses attending in-person events with those organizations.

“We’ve been doing virtual events, but it’s not the same,” Levy said. “This was a way I could be here physically helping.”

Staff and volunteers from SSFS helped load up the donated food — enough to fill five cars — to be delivered directly to its counseling office and to clients in its Sanctuary Program.

SSFS events coordinator Brittany Williams called the collection turnout “amazing,” and said the agency is storing additional food at its Homewood administration office for later distribution.

“It’s such a great feeling to know our clients won’t have to worry, and that we have such strong support from the community,” Williams said.

COVID-19 fallout challenges domestic violence victims, workers

By: Carole Sharwarko

HF Chronicle June 16, 2020

The executive director of a local domestic violence services agency said the low number of requests for services during Illinois’ stay-at-home order don’t tell the whole story about what victims experienced during that time.

Jennifer Gabrenya is executive director of South Suburban Family Shelter, a nonprofit in Homewood that assists families experiencing domestic violence. She said their hotline has been quiet lately, but of course that doesn’t mean incidents of domestic violence suddenly decreased.

“In the first few months, we were getting zero requests for new counseling. That, in itself, was really scary,” Gabrenya said. “What we’re worried about are people who can’t safely get to a phone. They can’t reach out because they’re in the house with the person who’s hurting them, 24 hours a day.”

Many SSFS clients must lie to their abuser in order to leave the house for counseling and other services, Gabrenya said. Women might say they’re going to church or to the home of a friend or family member. Since the pandemic closed establishments and restricted people’s movements, those excuses went away.

“One of my colleagues has at least one client who’s able to leave the house and go for a walk. That’s when she calls in for services,” Gabrenya said.

“If you’re afraid of the person in your home, you’re not going to be able to go in the bathroom and make a call. There’s no privacy, there’s no safety, there are no boundaries.”

An essential operation, SSFS continued its work when Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a virtual state shutdown in late March. The agency has maintained all its programs, except for medical advocacy, since hospitals wouldn’t permit non-patients to enter.

To continue counseling sessions for people experiencing abuse, Gabrenya said SSFS set up a system to connect with clients via video messaging. It had to be secure, discreet and simple — nothing requiring a client to set up an account or provide an email address — so it wouldn’t be noticed by an abuser going through his victim’s phone.

Even with a robust system, Gabrenya said she recognizes that connecting through technology isn’t the ideal way to share problems and feelings with a counselor.

“Of course, the virtual stuff doesn’t work for everyone. We’re very painfully aware that counseling, therapy and group services are more ideally served in person,” she said.

The counseling staff has been saddened and alarmed, Gabrenya said, to find certain clients unreachable. Some don’t answer their phone, while others’ numbers have been disconnected.

As SSFS staff has developed new and safe ways to connect with clients, Gabrenya said they simultaneously faced an enormous challenge in housing victims of domestic violence, which often include children as well as adults.

SSFS does not operate a physical shelter. Instead, it uses a system of hotelling for clients in immediate need. The agency rents hotel rooms to provide clients with emergency shelter. If needed, it then places clients at shelters operated by other domestic violence and nonprofit agencies.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, most of these congregant shelters have closed or stopped admitting new residents, Gabrenya said. SSFS staff were forced to use solely the hotelling system for clients who need a safe place to stay — a costly solution.

“We’ve experienced over a 500% increase in nights. It’s cost us $40,000 in the last two months,” Gabrenya said.

She’s thankful, however, that SSFS already had a structure in place for sheltering clients in hotel rooms. Gabrenya said other agencies with no such system have reached out for help setting one up, and SSFS has been able to advise them on billing and other logistics.

Though the constraints of the pandemic shutdown have strained the agency’s operations and finances, Gabrenya said she feels impressed by what her team accomplished while facing serious challenges.

“There were some amazing things that came out of this because you can see the innovation that the staff has,” Gabrenya said. “We have found people have talents we didn’t know they had. We’ve had to pivot and shift so fast, it’s amazing that we still have our head on our shoulders.”

SSFS continues services for those in domestic violence situations

By: Carole Sharwarko

HF Chronicle March 25, 2020

Although Illinois has a “shelter in place” directive, South Suburban Family Shelter (SSFS) is still offering services to individuals and families who are in domestic violence situations.

Kris Scott of SSFS said the bilingual 24-hour hotline is always open for those in crisis and in need of emergency shelter. The hotline number is 708-335-3028. The Crisis Intervention Program will continue to help individuals and their children obtain short-term emergency shelter through the 24-hour hotline.

SSFS court advocates will not be at the Circuit Court of Cook County Markham courthouse until April 7. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office is in place to assist victims with emergency orders of protection.

South Suburban Family Shelter provides caring and confidential help to victims of domestic violence. Scott said the professional counselors and advocates understand the dynamics of domestic violence and help clients identify and choose options in their life situations.

All services are free of charge for victims and are available in English and Spanish.

Financial support for South Suburban Family Shelter can be made online at

Paint-your-own seating project supports agency’s ‘benchmark’ anniversary

By: Carole Sharwarko

HF Chronicle March 10, 2020

This spring, you have the chance to paint a piece of public art that supports an important community cause.

“Benches for Change” is the latest in annual installations sponsored by the Homewood Business Association that highlights aspects of the neighborhood with resident-created art.

This year the project provides benches you can purchase, paint and have displayed around town. Benches must be purchased by Sunday, March 15, at UpsaDaisy Boutique, 18100 Martin Ave. They will arrive, unassembled, in about two weeks.

Benches available for purchase will arrive unfinished, ready to be assembled and painted. This is an image of the actual bench. (Provided photo)
Benches available for purchase will arrive unfinished, ready to be assembled and painted. This is an image of the actual bench. (Provided photo)

Previous years have recognized South Suburban Humane Society with painted dogs and cats for “Pets on Parade,” and Cancer Support Center featuring uniquely decorated “Chairs With a Purpose.” Those fundraisers saw 30 to 40 items painted, with thousands of dollars raised.

This year, the project turns the town’s attention to South Suburban Family Shelter, an agency located in Homewood that provides education and resources to end the cycle of domestic violence.

The benches are part of recognizing the organization’s 40th anniversary in 2020, according to Brittany Williams, the agency’s events manager.

“With it being our 40th anniversary we stepped back and looked at what really makes us a staple in this area,” Williams said.

Benches supply a space for reflection, observation and rest — things SSFS provides to its clients who often are immersed in chaotic situations.

“It’s a two-seater bench, supplying that message that you’re never alone,” Williams said. “We’re trying to do for this town what we’ve done for so many people.”

Anyone from individuals and families to businesses, churches and youth groups can buy an unpainted bench for $150.

You’ll have about a month-and-a-half to paint the bench with a design of your choosing. Then benches will go to Homewood Auto Body to receive a two-step topcoat to make them durable outdoors.

Completed benches will be unveiled on June 5 during the Art & Garden Fair, then displayed throughout town over the summer.

Finally, during Fall Fest on Sept. 26 the benches will be auctioned, with proceeds benefiting SSFS. Winners of the benches can choose to leave them in town or relocate them to their home or business.

Williams said bench design possibilities are “limitless,” as long as they are kept tasteful. People may choose to include an inspirational message, a family crest, an abstract design or another representational image.

“Over at Jonathan Kane Salon, I know they’re having a contest among the staff to come up with the design for their bench,” Williams said.

Hopefully, she said, the vibrant benches will pique the interest of people doing business, shopping and dining in Homewood, who will then learn the connection to SSFS.

“People will start thinking about us when they’re doing things downtown,” Williams said. “The fact that it’ll come back to us is fun, and hopefully start that conversation about what we do as an organization.”

Chamber of Commerce heads up 3-village holiday charity effort

By: Carole Sharwarko
HF Chronicle November 16, 2019
The Homewood Area Chamber of Commerce (HACC),  in cooperation with the villages of Homewood, Flossmoor and Glenwood, will conduct a charitable drive to support three local groups this holiday season.
The Village of Homewood will collect items to support the South Suburban Family Shelter (SSFS), the Village of Flossmoor will collect for South Suburban PADS and the Fire Department from the Village of Glenwood will collect toy donations for their annual toy drive.

This idea to support all three communities was formulated by the HACC Board to better include all three communities that are part of the chamber.

Chamber President Rodney Young said, “We hope the chamber members and Homewood, Flossmoor and Glenwood residents will support these charitable drives and donate to the organization of their choice. The Chamber realizes this is a busy time for everyone and our area is very charitable conducting numerous holiday drives for many worthy causes. But we’re hoping to show that the HACC cares and give back to the communities with a great showing of support.

“The chamber is so grateful for the wonderful cooperation among the villages. This cooperative effort matches our 2020 goal to foster better relationships with local groups through cooperative events and causes. Please donate to those in need.”

Please drop off donations at one of these locations no later than Dec. 11 or bring your donations to the Chamber’s Holiday Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday Dec. 12 at Aurelio’s in Homewood.
According to Brittany Williams from the SSFS, all 26 families consisting of 94 individuals who are in need this year have been adopted, which is fabulous, said Williams.

“Now these families need food items to have a nice holiday dinner. Any non-perishable food items that  you would serve at your Holiday gathering will really help.”

The wish list from domestic violence survivors includes boxes of stuffing, instant potatoes, cranberries, rolls, canned pumpkin and canned vegetables.

The village of Homewood will accept these items at the village hall, 2020 Chestnut Road, during regular business hours from now until Dec. 11.  Village hall is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday.
If anyone would like to donate to the SSFS with a check or gift card, please drop or mail them to SSFS at 18137 Harwood Ave. anytime between now and Christmas. Make checks Payable to the South Suburban Family Shelter.

“Some of our clients need gas to get to their counseling appointments, so gas gift cards are always welcome,” said Williams.

The Village of Flossmoor will be collecting for South Suburban PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter).

According to PADS officials, the homeless are not only in need of shelter but also necessities such as chapstick, deodorant and new underwear.

PADS also asked for $5 gift cards for Walmart, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Walgreens and similar stores.

The gift cards help the homeless get by when they need food and clothing or just a hot cup of coffee during the winter cold.

These items, except gift cards, can be dropped off at the Flossmoor village hall, 2800 Flossmoor Road, during regular business hours from now until Dec. 11.

Please drop off gift cards directly to PADS at one of their two south suburban locations, 414 Lincoln Highway, Chicago Heights, or 4411 W Gatling Boulevard, Country Club Hills.  

According to Glenwood Fire Chief and HACC Board member Kevin Welsh, the Glenwood Fire Department hosts an Annual Food and Toy Drive throughout the community.

“We collect at either fire station, 605 Glenwood-Lansing Road or at 534 Roberts Drive, until Dec. 14,” said Welsh. “We drive every street and collect what people have packaged for us and left at the end of their driveways.”

New and wrapped toys and non-perishable food items will be accepted until Dec. 14. Items are sorted and prepared to deliver the to families in need. Families are identified with help from community suggestions and in consultation with Brookwood School District 167 staff.

Monetary donations are also accepted, Welsh said.

“The Glenwood Firefighters Association uses this money to bolster the donations and purchase whatever we need to provide each family with groceries for a holiday meal and presents for each child and sometimes their parents.”

More information:

SSFS launches month of ‘change’ to fight violence

By: Carole Sharwarko
HF Chronicle October 11, 2019 – 21:39
Be the Change cards created by South Suburban Family Shelter offer a suggestion for each day in October Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)
Be the Change cards created by South Suburban
Family Shelter offer a suggestion for each day
in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month,
and were handed out during the Be the Change
(Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

With community sing-alongs and a swishing rainbow dress, the South Suburban Family Shelter kickoff event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month looked a bit different this year than its previous incarnation.

For years, Homewood-based SSFS has hosted a candlelight vigil near the beginning of DV awareness month, a solemn event with emotional speakers and recitations of serious statistics.
The revamped 2019 program, called Be the Change Celebration, still included the ever-present moment of silence to honor those who lost their lives due to domestic violence. However, the tone of the brief event at Marie Irwin Park in Homewood was upbeat and focused on positive action.
Throughout the event, Ahren Hawkin from Melody Mart led a community ukulele band, and motivational speaker Gina Bell cast a spell of positivity over the crowd.
“I’m excited about the new format this year,” said Kerry Hill, SSFS’s manager for community education and outreach. “I really like the shift to empowerment.”
The program opened with a sing-along of “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson, led by Hawkin and the ukulele band.
Then the crowd heard from a woman named Angela, a mother of five who benefitted from SSFS’s Sanctuary program. Sanctuary services assist people who want to leave situations of domestic violence.
“I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for this organization. It got bad; I had no peace,” said Angela, holding her youngest daughter on her hip. “Do whatever you can to support this organization. We need this, our families need this, our girls need this.”
After Angela received a rousing round of applause, SSFS Executive Director Jennifer Gabrenya welcomed Bell to the stage. Bell is a motivational speaker and women’s empowerment coach from Dyer, Ind.
Motivational speaker Gina Bell inspires the crowd in her rainbow skirt, as South Suburban Family Shelter Executive Director Jennifer Gabrenya looks on. (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)
Motivational speaker Gina Bell inspires the crowd
in her rainbow skirt, as South Suburban Family
Shelter Executive Director Jennifer Gabrenya
looks on.
 (Carole Sharwarko/H-F Chronicle)

When she took the stage, Bell told the crowd that night was the first time she ever spoke publicly about her own experience with domestic violence. She did so briefly, and then transitioned into her program where she encouraged members of the audience to spread positivity.

Everyone has an inner light, Bell said, though most people don’t want to show it. To represent this, Bell, who was dressed all in black, put on a big fluffy skirt made from a rainbow of tulle layers.
“Think about the light inside all of us,” she said. “You have the ability to shine your light out into the community.”
Bell led the audience through a participatory cheer of sorts, where they recited the words, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”
The quick presentation brought smiles to faces in the crowd. Then Gabrenya invited attendees to visit the resource table to get information, along with a Be the Change suggestions card and a purple light bulb to “Shine a light on domestic violence.”
The ukulele band closed the program with a sing-along performance of “Perfect” by Pink.