A sharply dressed woman steps into the small lobby of the Howard Mohr Community Center and is greeted with familiar smiles and a few hugs. She’s on her way downtown so she only has a minute, and quickly sits down to fill out a few forms.

She and her 17-year-old son live in an apartment in Forest Park, a community she’s called home for the last eight years. For more than nine years, she worked at HSBC, an international banking company.

On this day, several months after being laid off, she’s at the community center to see if she can get help paying her rent. When she gets to her meeting in the city she’ll file for bankruptcy protection.

“The things you have to go through to survive, it’s hard,” said the 52-year-old woman, Vallie. “And the depression. I’ve never had to do this before.”

Vallie’s is just one of the scores of new faces that have come to the community center in the last year looking for help. Like many who’ve been cast in this unfamiliar role, she’s embarrassed by her plight and the Review agreed not to publish her full name.

“When I had to come here – it’s hard,” Vallie said.

Food, toiletries, clothes, financial assistance – even just a reassuring word – have been in strong demand since last September, said Karen Dylewski, director of the center. The log books for the food pantry have swollen to the point where double, sometimes triple, the number of clients use the service. Shopping trips to restock the food pantry used to cost only $500 or $600, said Dylewski. Now, it’s common for the bill to top $1,000, and the food doesn’t last as long.

“I don’t ever want to turn anyone away, but it’s getting bad,” she said.”

In addition to putting a greater strain on the community center’s social service programs, the recession has cut into donations. Other agencies with which Dylewski’s office partners – such as the Salvation Army – have pulled funding in an effort to stretch their dollars. Fundraising has helped a little, she said, but the budget is shrinking and Dylewski is worried the center’s capacity to provide assistance will worsen before it improves.

“If everybody could just donate a dollar or a can of food, it would make a huge difference,” Dylewski said. “Especially with Christmas coming, I’m just so worried.”

During the last holiday season, the community center gave away 140 boxes of food. That figure is almost double the 80 or so boxes that are typically handed out.

The plight of small, local food pantries throughout the region may be quite dire, according to Bob Dolgan, a spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. His agency provides food to some 600 soup kitchens, pantries and shelters in Cook County. Over the last year, said Dolgan, demand has risen 35 percent.

“In particular, we’re seeing dramatic increases to suburban areas, in some cases double,” Dolgan said.

The Forest Park community center is not served by the depository, but Dylewski said she’s in the process of filing paperwork to change that. If the center qualifies, Dylewski and her staff could purchase food items from the depository for as little as 7 cents a pound. When they buy supplies at a nearby grocery store, Dylewski said they do not receive a discount.

In the meantime, new faces continue to walk through the door.

“It wears on me,” Dylewski said, wiping away tears. “It could be any of us. It could be me or my mom. People are just people, you know.”