By Nona Tepper
A young Egyptian couple cradled their newborn daughter as they hobbled into the Howard Mohr Community Center on Jan. 31. They hadn't eaten in days.
The couple saw the word "community" on the side of the building, pulled into the parking lot and asked for help. Their request sparked a movement across Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest, with concerned neighbors pitching in the ease the plight of the poor immigrant family.
"This happens all the time, day in and day out. Serving families is what we do," said Karen Dylewski, director of the community center. "But this was a baby that hasn't eaten, a newborn baby that mom couldn't feed. That put us over the edge."
Dylewski saw the baby wasn't getting milk, and couldn't sleep that night. She posted a call to action on Facebook, asking, "Anyone who has baby items, food, formula, clothes, please let me know. Really need your help with this one. They are beautiful people."
Her request went viral. Screenshots of the post ended up in at least four Forest Park, Proviso Township and other area Facebook groups, with hundreds of people liking, commenting and sharing the posts.
The next day, Dylewski said she received calls from about 20 people from all walks of life — lawyers, doctors, Arabic translators — all asking how they could help the Egyptian couple. Dylewski said the support is overwhelming, but in a good way.
"I need somebody to manage my Facebook page," she joked, later adding, "I know they're going to be OK. They'll be back on their feet in a few months, and hopefully mom will get past her medical issues, dad can go to work and they'll have a good feeling about America."
The Egyptian couple, who Dylewski declined to name out of a concern for privacy, were on rocky footing in Forest Park. Dylewski believes the man has been in the U.S. about four years. His wife joined him about a year ago. About two weeks ago, they had their first baby.
Neither the husband nor the wife speak English comfortably, and neither has family in the U.S. The cultural gap has presented challenges to them as they've tried to navigate American social service agencies.
During the woman's pregnancy, she reportedly contracted a "grave, very dangerous, serious situation" that's left her with blood clots, Dylewski said.
"She's got to see a doctor three to four times per week, and receive injections two or three times a day," Dylewski said. "That's why he's got to be at home. He's got to be at home to take care of the baby while mom takes care of herself."
After a few tries, the woman was able to get herself signed up for CountyCare, Cook County's health insurance program for low-income people. The husband works as a limo driver about two days a week. The two own a condo in Forest Park, but are a few months behind on their mortgage. After a few days of skipping meals, the mom stopped producing milk, starving the 10-day old baby girl.
"He's a very, very nice, proud, humble man. He just wants to take care of his care of his family," Dylewski said.
Dylewski runs a food pantry at the community center, so she was able to feed them right away. She also handed them gift cards for groceries, gas and more. She told them to come back the next day, and every day after.
Because the community center is also a Salvation Army drop-off point, Dylewski and officials are working to collect donations to pay for the family's January and February mortgage bills and help them stockpile funds so the new family can get settled.
Dylewski said she received a generous $200 donation from the Kiwanis and another $20 from a woman "with a toddler who said she saw my post and couldn't sleep."
Community center staff have also filled out and expedited applications to get the child signed up for health care, food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food nutrition service. Those who want to donate can drop off items at the community center at 7640 Jackson Blvd.
"It's really hard for people that are not used to the system; they don't even know where to begin," Dylewski said. "You have to go and sit and wait in lines and tell your story all over again, and it's even harder when you don't speak the language so freely."
The outpouring of support has inspired the family to warm to community center staff, telling Dylewski they're family now.
To that, Dylewski replied: "When you're all set back, working and everything is good, you pay it forward."