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The staff at the West Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) likes to ring a bell each time they help a homeless person find a residence. The idea was derived from the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. The tradition is meant to be lighthearted, but to their guests, the men and women of PADS really are angels.

“I get overwhelmed when I think about what they’ve done to help me,” said Deborah, a woman who was burned out of her apartment by a fire this past August. She said the Red Cross put her up for two days, but after that, she was on her own, homeless for the first time in her life. Deborah then turned to PADS for support.

“Their resources seem to be unlimited and so does their passion about what they’re doing to help people” Deborah said.

Lisa Holmes, 21, came all the way from the South Side of Chicago for PADS’ services. She spent time at one shelter where they were rude to guests, and the only positive thing they provided was food.

“When people are rude, that’s what makes homeless people take their lives and resort to drugs and alcohol and sex for money,” Holmes said. “They should have services like PADS citywide, not just in the western suburbs. I shouldn’t have to come all the way out here to Oak Park just for services.”

Chris Guenther, 44, another guest at PADS, said the organization can get “political” sometimes over who they let in the shelter, but overall it is a “good organization, and they try to help you the best they can.”

In 2006, the organization celebrates its 15th year of existence. PADS started in 1991 when a group of people in the faith communities of Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park decided something needed to be done about the rising number of homeless people in the area and the lack of adequate shelters.

An overview of PADS

After researching different shelter models the group chose PADS, a strategy cultivated by Sister Rose Marie Lorentzen, in conjunction with the Aurora Area Clergy Association. Under the model, shelter spaces are provided by local church congregations, and each church acts as a shelter one day a week.

The name “Tri-Village PADS” was adopted in March of 1992 after electing the first board of directors, and on Oct. 2 of that year, PADS opened its first emergency shelter.

The organization was renamed in 2000 after its services were expanded to reach 20 west Cook County suburbs. According to Forest Parker Mary Richie, a retired teacher and 10-year volunteer at PADS, the expansion isn’t enough.

“We really need more sites; we’re turning a lot of people away because we really don’t have the room for them,” Richie said, who also is a member of the PADS board. “It’s heartbreaking to have to send people away.”

PADS expanded the types of services it offers as well. Now, in addition to emergency shelter and food services, they offer a daytime support center, case management for those suffering from substance abuse, mental health and medical problems, and services to help prevent homelessness, along with housing assistance programs.

Once a small, informal movement of local residents, PADS now has a $1.3 million budget and a staff of 15 professional workers at its office, located on the third floor of St. Bernardine’s at 816 Marengo Ave., in Forest Park. According to Executive Director Lynda Schueler, 60 percent ($780,000) of the cash budget comes from federal, state, county and local funding, while the other 40 percent ($520,000) comes from general contributions by individuals, businesses, congregations, and service groups, as well as fund-raising events and private foundations.

PADS gets an additional $350,000 from in-kind support, according to Schueler. That figure includes the space donated by various churches for shelters, volunteer time, and the meals donated by the communities – 37,000 meals were served last year by PADS, 300,000 meals during a 15-year span. More than 4,000 people have been served by PADS in 15 years, which comes out to more than 100,000 nights of shelter.

“Oak Park has really taken ownership in the issue [of homelessness], evidenced by the number of congregations and volunteers that have invested themselves in this agency,” Schueler said. “We couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the volunteers.”

Headquarters may move to Maywood

PADS has outgrown its home in Forest Park, and the board of directors has discussed relocating its administrative offices for the past four years. No contract has been signed yet, but they’re looking at moving to St. Eulalia Catholic Church in nearby Maywood, Ill.

The organization has moved three times already after outgrowing prior locations.

Currently, PADS rents 16 offices in what used to be the St. Bernardine convent. Schueler’s office is in what used to be a nun’s dorm room. Her papers and books sit on a sink; other items are stored away in a closet.

The support center is confined to five offices, three of which have staff in them. Two offices have computers and lockers in them. Half of the staff is doubled up, with two employees in one office. On the other end of the hall from Schueler’s office is the shower room for guests.

“It’s a little odd at best,” Schueler said of the space. “The cramped quarters have really taken a toll on our ability to serve the needs of our clients, as well as having a professional work environment.”

Socks for Christmas

Schueler lives in Oak Park and has served as PADS’ executive director for five years, overseeing daily operations for the agency and working to develop programs. For Schueler, acting as head of the agency requires more than organizational skills.

“You need to have compassion for the homeless population, which is often shunned by society,” Schueler said.

One of her most memorable experiences working at PADS came on a Christmas morning.

“I’ll never forget, there was this one gentleman – we were handing out small presents to guests in the shelter. This man finished up his breakfast, he opened his gift, and there was a pair of socks. He remarked that this was one of the best Christmases because he wasn’t by himself and somebody had cared enough to give him a gift.

“It just hit home. The simplicity of how this gentleman could be happy with a pair of socks on Christmas morning in a shelter. If we can provide that kind of happiness in such a simple way, we’ve got to be doing something right,” Schueler said.

15-year volunteer

Will Kasander usually wakes up guests at PADS when he volunteers at the shelter. Often he has seen guests thank God for another day as soon as they open their eyes, just happy to be alive. That response never fails to amaze him.

“It surprises me because I would think waking up like that would be a difficult and frightening thing,” Kasander said. “But many of the guests wake up with a positive attitude and a cheerful disposition, and it just always surprises me.”

Kasander resides in Oak Park and retired from his position at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange in 2002. He has volunteered with PADS since its inception when he was a member of First United Church, the original overnight shelter site for PADS.

In 2001, Kasander joined the board of directors at PADS and was appointed treasurer.

Kasander said the organization didn’t understand the scope of the homeless problem when it began its work in the early ’90s and thought maybe it was just a temporary issue. That’s why they call them “emergency shelters.”

“When we first started PADS, we had the nave idea that we were dealing with a short-term problem. I think that’s all we could see. We didn’t really know how to approach the systemic direction of the problem,” Kasander said.

Being a volunteer at PADS, according to Kasander, doesn’t require any sort of formal training in social work. He said typically the work is no different from entertaining guests at home: just common sense and hospitality.

“It takes a sense of concern for the plight of fellow human beings,” he said. “It takes a bit of willingness to give up a little sleep, now and then. The bottom line is it requires compassion.”