North Chicago’s Mary Carmody stands in the middle of a tangled field of grasses, with wooded acreage beyond. To her right, a clapboard farmhouse looms near a copse of oak trees. There are weathered outbuildings and broad stretches of cracked concrete pads in between. But next year, says Carmody, Executive Director of the Midwest Veterans Closet (MVC), this vista is set to dramatically change.
“That’s when we plan to break ground to build our new facility,” she says.
The rambling acreage was purchased on Green Bay Road a few months ago with a $500,000 state grant. The site will be built out to become the 501(c)3 organization’s much-needed new home, expanding what has virtually been a rented closet into a bigger, better-equipped space for the multitude of free goods and services MVC provides to active duty military, and veterans.
Currently operating out of a rental unit four blocks south, MVC has been a relied-upon source for food, clothing, shoes, household goods, and furniture since it opened in 2014. Carmody, named the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois’ 2019 Military Hero of the Year for her work at MVC, says she has been grateful for the space. But the warren of rooms are tiny, difficult to access (especially for veterans in wheelchairs), and lack adequate storage space. All problematic, given the volume of goods that flow to veterans, and military through MVC.
“In the last six months, we have given out 28,453 pounds of food,” says Carmody. “But need goes far beyond that. Each month 550 individuals—about half active duty military, and half veterans—come to us for one or more of our services.” That could be anything from new shoes or a winter coat, to basic computer training and job-search assistance. MVC even provides business attire for job interviews. The planned new facility will not only expand MVC’s space by 500% to 10,000 square feet, it will add new services.
Perhaps most exciting, “We are adding a commercial kitchen, and have plans to provide basic culinary training and jobs to a group of female veterans,” says Carmody. “Our hope is to convert the farmhouse on the property to become a residential facility for women who are transitioning from the Veteran’s Administration homeless shelter, or from programs at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. The plan is to give these women on-site job training, and then employment in the kitchen.”
Residents in the house will receive basic culinary training from two local business women—Leslie Habjan of Aunt Winnie’s Cookies, and Catherine Thomas O’Meara of Heller Catering, who will be renting the kitchen to operate their food companies. “It’s a win-win for both the veterans and the women operating their companies here,” says Carmody.
Carmody is planning to add an education center to host training seminars, and to offer legal consultations for veterans from law schools in the area. She has also begun talks with Elawa Farm in Lake Forest to add vegetable gardens and gardening training on the grounds. “North Chicago is a food desert, so having gardens here to both teach veterans how to grow produce, and then to have the potential for fresh crops grown here for them to eat—that would be a beautiful thing,” says Carmody.
In addition, the new facility will have a larger Food and Nutrition Center, or “grocery store,” which MVC stocks daily from donors including Lake Forest Jewel-Osco and The Fresh Market. The space provides veterans with whatever food items they need, free of charge. There will be expanded display sections for clothing, housewares, and furniture, as well as a storage warehouse for donations.
But to bring everything to fruition, MVC will need to raise substantial support—both funding and professional. “We are currently searching for an architect and planner to help us shape the initial plans,” says Carmody. With those ready, MVC will work with Lake County contractors and apprentices to erect the building.
“We have already had interest from the general public in how they can help with the building fund,” says Carmody. “We are currently shaping a memorial brick project, which will allow people to honor both veterans who have fallen and living veterans we currently serve. Individuals, families and corporations who want to donate to this cause will have a brick inscribed with the name of a fallen veteran they wish to memorialize. That brick will then be displayed in the façade of the new building.”
While the tasks at hand seem monumental, Carmody believes that supporting military and veterans is a cause that Lake County finds worthwhile. “We have come so far from the day I started with nothing but a borrowed landscaping trailer filled with clothing donations,” she says.
“Just making people aware that the need is there brings heartfelt response.”
For more information, visit midwestveteranscloset.org.