In Karen Dylewski’s office at the Howard Mohr Community Center, she keeps a book of who’s stopping by to pick up a box of food from the pantry she and her staff maintain. Glancing at the pages from a year ago, the roll includes no more than a handful or two of names. When she flips the pages to more recent weeks, the names run the length of each sheet. The difference is shocking, and becomes only more so if you allow yourself to consider the story behind every signature.

The last 12 months at the food pantry are filled with new faces and new families, all trying to cope with financial burdens that have become too much. Dylewski, a lifelong resident who, with her husband, raised three children here, told the Review that the need may be reaching an unprecedented level. Her budget is stretched with every trip to the grocery store, but the food doesn’t last very long. Before the economy went south, the center could stock its shelves with half – sometimes a third – of what it now spends. And in the meantime, donations have slowed to a trickle.

Help for the pantry may be on the way, and we can all play a role. On her end, Dylewski is exploring whether she can access food collected by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. At steeply discounted prices, the depository helps the agencies on the front line keep pace with the needs of the community. In the last year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed a record amount of food, according to a spokesperson. The need is truly great.

In our own homes, in our offices, on our softball teams and even at your favorite watering hole, we can all help. A donation of $3 would go a long way at the food depository. Better yet, a few cans of vegetables could be handed directly to Forest Park families who’ve hit a rough patch. Grab a couple cardboard boxes and ask for donations in your neighborhood. Tell your buddies you’ll buy the next round if they put their money in the jar you’ve labeled for the pantry. On the softball field, match your RBI totals with donations that directly impact the community.

Economic hardship doesn’t have to be a gloomy chapter in the story of Forest Park. Instead, if those who fall on hard times can know that their neighbors are there to support them, moments like this become an uplifting experience that deepens our connection to one another. The shame of having to ask for help can be erased if we extend our hand and offer a smile.

Give at 7640 Jackson, or call 771-7737 to find out how you can help.