Each month, Midwest Veterans Closet serves about 350 veterans at its North Chicago location, providing them free food, clothing and personal care items, home goods and furniture, Internet access and housing and job search assistance.
According to the Veterans Assistance Commission, there are about 4,000 at-risk veterans in Lake County alone.
“I can see that folks really want to help veterans, but sometimes they don’t know how,” said Mary Carmody, who founded Midwest Veterans Closet in July of 2014 to do just that.
The nonprofit first operated out of a landscape trailer at the Freedom Farm for Vets in Wadsworth, a working farm where veterans and their families can grow and take home produce, interact with animals and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
“We quickly filled up the trailer with donations but no one was coming because the location was too remote and not on public transportation,” Carmody said.
The organization then began leasing space at 2323 Green Bay Rd., in North Chicago, which is close to public transportation and the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center.
“We’re able to serve veterans from Lake County, Wisconsin and even Indiana,” Carmody said. “The community has been great. It’s wonderful, but sad at the same time. Last winter, we had quite a few veterans ride up on their bicycles with icicles hanging off. We warmed them up and gave them soup to take home.”
Midwest Veterans Closet client Ashley Castorena, 36, is a former police officer and Navy veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was stationed on an aircraft carrier in Florida and served five years active duty and three years in the reserves.
Castorena moved to Waukegan from Florida with her two teenager daughters 18 months ago.
“When my children and I came on the bus, we came with a duffle bag and that was it,” she said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs told Castornena about Midwest Veterans Closet.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “Mary and Midwest Veterans Closet have helped us not only find the tools to get everything we need, but they’ve motivated and encouraged us.”
After finding housing, Midwest Veterans Closet furnished the family’s home with everything from bed sheets to cabinets.
“They filled the house. And when Christmas came along, they brought a Christmas tree, decorations and presents,” Castorena said.
She is now back in school, working toward a bachelor’s degree in trauma and crisis intervention.
“I don’t have a computer or internet, so I come down here (to Midwest Veterans Closet) almost daily to do my homework.”
Additional space is needed for Midwest Veterans Closet to expand its many services. Carmody is hoping they can make an offer to purchase 18,000 square-feet of unused warehouse space attached to their building. The property is listed for $679,000 and has been on market for about six months.
If Midwest Veterans Closet can raise enough money to make an offer, they’d lease the space to business owners wanting to employ veterans, like Leslie Habjan, owner of Aunt Winnie’s Kitchen in Lake Bluff, who has already committed to the concept.
Stand Up for Veterans
A fundraising event will be held Saturday, Sept. 24, to help Midwest Veterans Closet get closer to reaching its goal for expansion.
Presented by Kristof’s Entertainment Center, Rock Chevrolet and Jim Onan of Onan Enterprises, Stand Up for Veterans will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Gold Pyramid House located at 37921 Dilleys Rd., in Wadsworth.
The free event will feature tours of the home starting at 11 a.m., food and beverage vendors, craft fair, bingo tent run by veterans and live music and entertainment including Dan “Elvis” Ehlert from Branson, Missouri, The Andrews Sisters and Eddie Domino & The Domino Effect featuring the nephew of “Fats” Domino.
There will also be a silent auction, 50/50 raffle, raffles for gift baskets and a raffle for a 2017 Chevy Camaro from Rock Chevrolet in Grayslake. Tickets are $100 each.
Organizers haven’t set a fundraising goal.
“Our dream is to raise enough money to buy the building, but I’d be happy to raise $5,” Carmody said.
Tom Kristof, owner of =Kristof’s Entertainment Center in Round Lake Beach, said he heard Carmody speak about the needs of Midwest Veterans Closet at an Exchange Club meeting and wanted to do something to help.
The first thing he did was buy $1,000 worth of underwear at the Round Lake Beach Meijer to donate after learning it was a huge need for the organization. When store management saw how much underwear Kristof was buying, they inquired about it and even kicked in.
Shortly thereafter, Kristof enlisted Jim Onan Jr. to coordinate the Stand Up for Veterans fundraiser.
“It’s time to help where help is needed,” Kristof said. “It’ll be a great event.”
Learn more about Midwest Veterans Closet at www.midwestveteranscloset.org.