Maria opens her box of produce and carefully lifts each item. Potatoes, spinach, carrots, peppers, onion, and garlic, plus a frozen chicken. Her four-year-old son, Maverik, tugs on her coat sleeve, excited to show off his gift—a stuffed green dinosaur wearing a party hat.
Maria and her family participated in Uniting for the Holidays, a series of drive-through events providing meals and gifts for thousands of residents in eight Chicago suburbs, including Palatine, where Maria has lived for more than 20 years. She is originally from Bulgaria and moved to the United States in 2000 after winning an immigrant visa through the Diversity Visa Program, or the “Green Card Lottery.”
“As every young person looking for new adventures, I decided to come [to the United States] for a better life,” Maria said. “I was only 21 and all by myself when I came. It was very hard in the beginning because I did not know too many people, no family, and had to work on my English skills too. I had a few friends who were living in the northwest suburbs who helped me, and my first rented apartment was in Palatine.”
Soon after settling in Palatine, Maria met her husband. Today, they have four children under the age of nine. Maria’s parents followed her from Bulgaria to the United States, and she first heard about Partners for Our Communities, a United Way funded agency in Palatine, after her parents started taking English classes there. With degrees in engineering and accounting, Maria is an accountant for a real estate management company, while her husband cares for their family at home. Their single income makes it difficult to afford childcare and expenses outside of basic needs.
“We are on a strict budget,” Maria said. “We try not to spend too much and spending only for the necessities that we do have. That’s why [Uniting for the Holidays] is really good for all those people who need that extra help for the holidays. That means a lot to everybody.”
Hosted by United Way of Metro Chicago, in partnership with local nonprofits and corporate sponsors, Uniting for the Holidays supports families with these basic needs—so everyone can feel the joy of the season while sharing gifts and connecting with loved ones.
Each family receives a holiday meal box with fresh produce, a frozen turkey or chicken, and a tote bag with stuffed animals, books, toiletries, snacks, and wellness resources. This year, more than 3,000 individuals and families were supported with thousands of meals and tens of thousands of stuffed animals, toys, and other gifts in eight communities: Palatine, Naperville, Harvey, Blue Island, Robbins, Ford Heights, Chicago Heights, and Elgin.
“You gave us some extra food, and we really liked the help,” Maria said. “It is important to help each other around this time of the year, around the holidays, because so many people are financially struggling a little bit, not only because of COVID, but they have very different issues. People are so nice, and we have so much help from the community. It’s unbelievable.”
Like so many families this holiday season, Maria’s family will gather around their table to share a meal and celebrate being together, taking a moment in their busy lives to nourish themselves and nurture each other.
“I love the holidays, just the spirit of the holidays, when we can spend more time with our families,” Maria said. “It’s a holiday in my heart too, yes, to be together, to spend time together.”
As our Uniting for the Holidays events wrapped up this month, we can continue to support our neighbors, like Maria, this holiday season and through the end of the year.
Photos by Tate Samata