Lush greens and wild flowers reach for the sky, climbing beautiful homes and glowing from an intense downpour.
The owners of these homes volunteer to showcase some of their most exotic and vibrant flora for the 8th Annual Downers Grove Garden Walk.
In rain or shine, residents around Downers Grove and DuPage County flock to these homes for more than just the splendor of nature walks, they come to aid homeless families within their communities.
“Family homelessness is pretty well hidden,” said Mark Milligan, cofounder of the nonprofit, Bridge Communities, in Glen Ellyn. “You do not normally see homeless families on the streets. The garden walk’s primary goal is to raise money to support the [family rehabilitation] program. It also raises awareness of the program.”
Milligan and his friend Bob Walhgren, who is the other cofounder, started with one family back in 1988. They opened up their first apartment that year, so they could provide an alternative housing option to families struggling with homelessness.
“When we started, we really did not know much about poverty, so the family began to teach us as we worked with them,” Milligan said.
The first family they worked with was known as an intact family, meaning it had a father, mother and child. Milligan said one important concept they learned from this particular family was how hard it is to live in DuPage County on minimum wage.
The two started off slow, but eventually, more people began to help out in Glen Ellyn and the services they provided reached across the county.
About 10 years ago, Milligan reached out to Downers Grove First United Methodist Church to host the Downers Grove Garden Walk and other events to help fundraise for their cause.
After that, the Bridge Board was created, and Downers Grove United Church of Christ and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church joined to help support homeless families. Occasionally, the Downers Grove Rotary Club and similar groups will help out with events as well.
Chuck and Cindy Badtke from Lisle drove four miles just to see some of Downers Grove’s best private gardens. Cindy is an avid gardener, but the Badtkes were there to support the cause.
“I was familiar with the organization,” Cindy Badtke said. “I work at a school and we’ve had students that have come to our school that were sponsored by Bridge Communities.”
Bridge Communities has a wide reach among many villages and townships in DuPage, and schools work closely to provide tutors for kids and mentors to help parents learn how to budget their finances.
Mary Carver, volunteer of the Bridge Board and an active Downers Grove resident, said that the family that the board is working with is a single mother with three sons. They are almost complete with their two-year program, but they’ve been extended for an extra six months so that the boys can finish up some of their schooling.
“The mom has a full-time job and the three boys are flourishing,” Carver said.
After this family is set out on their own, the board will look for their next family to help out by a thorough screening.
According to the DuPage County Continuum, a source that surveys homelessness within the county, the annual One Night homeless count for 2014 indicated almost a two percent drop in homeless people at shelters. Though this is a small number, any reduction in these numbers show that community outreach is working.
Milligan said that Bridge Communities only works with families, whether it’s a single parent or an intact family. Any history of convictions or drug abuse is not tolerated. If they encounter someone with these issues or if they see a child that has lost its family, the organization will direct and help them find the right program.
“It’s a really worthy cause,” said Sue Goad, volunteer coordinator at DGFUMC. “Our church has been involved for some time and this is our main fundraising event that we do to help pay for the housing that we have for” homeless families.
Goad said that the Bridge Board patterned the event idea from Bridge Communities. They have this event in Glen Ellyn as well.
Milligan said that Bridge Communities created the program as a two-year period of rehab for a single family. In that time, mentors are hired with some of the fundraiser money and housing is prepared.
The Bridge Board hired mentors to meet with the family on a weekly basis. This is both for the parent and the children.
“That’s a huge commitment for two years,” Goad said. The mentors establish a relationship with this family and have to stick with them until the parents have jobs that can sustain the family.
Since all the money raised goes to the families in every way possible, some visitors appreciate the give-and-take approach to this event.
“I give to charities,” Pauline Semenchuk said. “This is nice because I like to give, but you get something back out of it too.”
Semenchuk lives in Downers Grove and has come to this walk ever since it started.
Bridge Communities has worked hard to unite DuPage County and to help homeless families become a part of society again.
“This is our community and we wanted to give back to our community,” Milligan said. “Regardless of where you live, it is very difficult to live in the bottom five percent of the income level. Poverty here may have a very different face than poverty somewhere else, but it is still poverty and it is still very difficult.”
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