“Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.” -Kris Kringle, Miracle on 34th Street
Christmas is for everyone! Cornerstone works hard each Holiday to celebrate and remember every shelter guest. Join us in making this time of year memorable for children, parents, and single adults experiencing homelessness.
We’re looking for volunteers to work in Santa’s workshop sorting, wrapping, and labeling Christmas gifts. Most people arrive at Cornerstone with little more than a backpack or duffle bag. We hope you will help us spread Christmas cheer through gift-giving. You can shop and donate gifts through the Cornerstone Wishlist. Or make a financial donation to ensure people coming to Cornerstone right before Christmas get gifts, too. Please use the QR codes below to get involved!
The CCO staff and families would like to thank the incredible sponsors, donors, and volunteers who made this year’s Back-to-School Party a hit! We called, and you answered! School-aged children at CCO can step into the new school year with confidence! Many thanks!
“A few months ago, as I walked onto the Cornerstone (CCO) rooftop garden, I could hear beautiful music. One of our shelter guests, a mom with five children, was practicing her saxophone for church on Sunday. What an unexpected gift to hear her music flowing out from among the herbs, flowers, and veggies! It felt almost magical. She and her children came to CCO because her husband was deported, which meant that the kids lost their dad, and she lost her husband, along with the majority of their income and their home. She and her children were so involved in the garden. It’s been fabulous watching families make the garden their own and care for it too.”
– Laura Thiessen, CCO rooftop gardener
The CCO Rooftop Garden has almost completed its third season of producing a variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs, microgreens, and flowers for CCO shelter guests. The benefits go far beyond the bountiful produce. The Rooftop Garden is a place for women and children to play, plant, grow, harvest, witness birds and insects, and relax in a safe outdoor space. The rooftop garden has been the fulfilled dream of Laura Thiessen or, as the kids call her, “The Garden Lady.” Laura has worked with fellow plant enthusiasts and shelter guests to make the Rooftop Garden a haven of life amid the concrete and brick of Chicago.
The garden always needs seeds and supplies. In April, one special shelter guest donated many seed packets and helped with planting. Laura said, “She gave me seeds for flowers, squash, and pepper that she bought at the dollar store. Once they sprouted and were ready for planting, she helped with that, too. She got a job and spent less time in the garden, but her plants are still in a special area just for her.”
In May and June, shelter guests can get their hands dirty planting. Guests from the Naomi Shelter for Women often help transplant the seedlings into growing totes on the rooftop. Children from the Hannah Shelter for Families join in and learn about gardening while having fun in the dirt.
Throughout the summer, Laura and fellow gardener, Martha Alicia Montes, host a Tea Time in the garden. Tuesdays are for the single women at Naomi Shelter. Laura said, “Marta often does an art project with the ladies. One project was wind catchers made from recycled cans. We hung them on the pergola. They were so pretty. Sometimes we play music and dance in the garden. It’s pretty relaxed. We want everyone to enjoy the green space and have fun.”
Thursday morning Tea Time in the garden is reserved for moms and children at CCO. “We grow three types of mint and make it into iced tea with honey. Sometimes, we gather echinacea or wildflowers to put in our tea. We also have a snack like watermelon, popsicles, or fruit salad. The kids always come running. They are curious and ask so many questions. Often, they want to water the plants or help in any way. I’ll show them how to pick the mint. If they’re upset, I tell them they can go to the mint plants and brush the tops with their hands, smell their minty hands, and take deep breaths. A lot of children stay at CCO. It can be pretty chaotic but a lot of fun! I’ve taught the kids to save seeds from the foods they eat and plant them. The garden draws the kids. They still pick green tomatoes. I try to teach them how to be a garden protector, not a garden picker. They’re learning!” Laura says with a chuckle.
A family of golden finches has made a home in the garden. Laura has carefully chosen seeds and plants that attract birds and pollinators to the rooftop garden. Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are frequent visitors of the flowers on the CCO roof. An enclosure had to be built to protect the black swallowtail butterflies from the birds. The children especially love seeing the butterflies in their habitat. The explosion of plant, bird, and insect life is a testimony to the importance of the CCO rooftop garden for humans and creatures alike.
“One day, we were in the rooftop garden during Tea Time. Several of the ladies just started talking about some personal and painful events. They were so vulnerable, sharing stories filled with heartache. I think something about being in the garden, outside in a green space together; it is therapeutic. We just listened. I felt honored to be entrusted with their stories. One of those ladies went on to get a job working in a large urban garden. She still has plants on the rooftop. The other ladies take pictures of her vegetables and send them to her so she can see that they are growing.”
“People come to CCO to get help. Sometimes, they move on fast. Even if their time at CCO is short, one moment can be important and special. Hopefully, when people look over their lives, they will know that Cornerstone gave them real support, compassion, and opportunity for a change. I’m grateful that the garden can be part of the good things happening at CCO. I want to thank all the women and children who helped in the CCO Rooftop Garden this year. I would also like to thank two important organizations, Seed Money and Awesome Foundation, for their financial support. This unique place of life, growth, and hope would not be possible without your generosity!”
-All quotes by Laura Thiessen, as told to Beth Nicholls
Cornerstone shelter guests need your support. Please consider making a financial donation today!
CCO would like to partner with generous donors to help support this year’s Back-to-School Party. Each August, CCO hosts a party filled with school supplies, new backpacks, games, treats, dancing, and a lot of motivation for the new school year. Your support will help make this year extra special for the children at CCO.
Children experiencing homelessness can face additional barriers to consistent education. CCO tries to bridge the gap that homelessness and poverty cause in childhood development and academics. The family case managers ensure children are attending school and have all they need to succeed. CCO partners with Chicago Hopes, which provides tutoring during the school year and enrichment programs in the summer to children sheltered at CCO every weekday afternoon.
If you want to sponsor part of the fun at this year’s party, contact Amanda Learmond at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit our Amazon Wish List by clicking here or scanning the QR code above.
Join us as we celebrate the outstanding accomplishments of the 2022 CCO shelter guests! CCO is honored to welcome, assist, and support anyone in need of shelter. In 2022, people experiencing poverty and homelessness found shelter beds, meals, personalized services, medical care, employment assistance, training, and education. We especially want to celebrate those who moved into their own apartments!
Many thanks to all who gave time, goods, or made a financial gift. Your generous partnership has made safe shelter possible. We hope you will continue to support CCO’s mission in 2023. Click here to Donate Today!
If you missed our 2022 Annual Report mailing, please click here to join our newsletter mailing list.
For over 30 years, Cornerstone Community Outreach has welcomed unhoused neighbors of all ages into safe, supportive shelter. The doors swing wide for everyone, from families with newborns to senior citizens and all ages in between. The post below will focus on persons 51 years old and over who have found shelter at CCO in 2021 & 2022.
In 2021 – 2022, in the CCO Naomi Shelters, 187 people (40%) of guests were ages 51 and older. Nationally, the number of unhoused older adults continues to rise.
Many factors play a role in the “graying of homelessness.” The death of a spouse or family member with whom the guest shared a dwelling and costs is one cause. The emotional and financial toll of loss reduces the likelihood of maintaining housing. It’s harder to pay the bills alone. For those walking a financial tightrope, the results can be catastrophic.
Other guests indicated job loss, age discrimination at job interviews, behavioral healthcare issues, and chronic physical health challenges or a combination of these as primary factors. Age discrimination blocks guests from getting and maintaining a job. Employers often hire newer, younger employees who receive lower wages. Shelter guests who have worked blue-collar jobs often have the added issue of declining health due to decades of physically demanding work. Among the guests at the Naomi Women’s Shelter, several women over 50 with university degrees and years of work experience struggle to find employment.
Systemic issues contribute to the rise in older adults experiencing homelessness. A few of these factors are weak safety nets, incarceration, an increasing lack of affordable housing, and the end of COVID assistance.
Remaining in housing is a growing challenge for older adults. Senior citizens receiving Social Security face rising rental costs on a fixed income. A seemingly small financial issue can force someone from their housing. Compelled to choose between prescription medication, food, utilities, or transportation, low-income adults struggle to make ends meet. Loss, medical issues, or a behavioral health crisis can disrupt the fine line that keeps older Americans housed. When this balance shifts, homelessness can ensue.
Since the pandemic, unhoused seniors face longer subsidized housing wait lists and stricter protocols. The circumstances point to the need for shelter and services for those who lose housing and accessible subsidized housing to keep homelessness from recurring.
Older single adults need a place to recover from the destructive effects of poverty and homelessness. Case managers at the Naomi Shelters for Men and Women work to build trust with new shelter guests. From that foundation of care, staff can assist guests in finding jobs, housing, healthcare, and a sense of community.
The 2022 Holiday Season brought joy and cheer to the families and individuals sheltered at CCO. Each child received a stocking filled with toys, treats, and a new pair of pajamas. They each wore their new pj’s to the CCO Christmas Party, where they got to meet Santa, receive gifts, and celebrate the holidays with their family. The Christmas Party featured CCO Board President Chris Spicer as Santa Claus, loads of sweet and savory treats, and a hot chocolate station. The crowd went wild when Santa arrived with his bags of gifts!
The celebrated season would not be possible without volunteers who made the party exceptional. Thanks to all who worked as elves in Santa’s Workshop, sorting, wrapping, and decorating Christmas presents for the big day. Christmas at Cornerstone would not be possible without your generous donation of toys for children and gifts for teens and adults. Many thanks!
We hope you enjoy the 2022 photo album. Enjoy the smiling faces found in it!
“In my storage unit, I was too cold to rest. I wanted a place to lay my head down and sleep. I would wrap up in ten blankets, trying to get warm.”
Denise seems to have an endless abundance of joy. She’s a very petite woman in her late 50s with bright eyes and a wide, welcoming smile. She exudes positivity and wields an upbeat personality. Denise had a solid and consistent work history. For 30 years, she worked at a major Chicago company. In 1979, she began a part-time position in the mailroom. During her years on the job, she got promoted twelve times, working her way up to full-time Engineering Clerk. After taking early retirement and giving funds to her son to pay for his college education, Denise felt she needed to return to work to make ends meet. She found a job as a secretary for a moving company. After a few years, that company relocated to Florida. Denise found herself unemployed and alone. Too young for social security but old enough to experience age discrimination when looking for work, she knew she needed help.
Finding a job proved difficult. Denise eventually lost her apartment. She had an outdoor storage space that measured 10 feet by 10 feet in a lot on the south side of Chicago. It held all the items from the apartment she lost, and with nowhere else to live, Denise moved into it. Without any heat and only a few flashlights for light, Denise prayed, read her Bible, and cried a river in that storage unit. Keeping clean was a real challenge. When she tried to wash up in a public restroom, she endured looks and comments from people who seemed to fear or despise her. Her former life was utterly lost.
Denise stayed in her storage unit for three long years and throughout notoriously harsh Chicago winters. She often rode the public transit system to escape the cold. “I was tired of riding the buses to stay warm, but no one ever robbed me. An angel must have been sitting beside me.” Throughout those years, Denise hid these circumstances from her son, who lived out of state.
Hard-working, sweet, and struggling to survive, Denise had been forced so far out on the margins of society that she couldn’t find her way back. This past January, Denise arrived at Cornerstone. After three years of living alone, one would think that Denise would find sharing a shelter space with 74 other women at Naomi Shelter nearly impossible. Not so! Denise soon began to encourage women younger than herself, giving wisdom and helping to defuse tense situations.
While at Cornerstone, Denise felt that God told her, “I’m giving you the rope, but it’s up to you to grab ahold and pull yourself up.” She did just that. With the help of her case manager, Denise completed security guard training, earned her PERC (Permanent Employment Registration Card), and got a full-time job as a security officer. When speaking about Naomi Shelter staff, Denise said, “They supported me. The case managers got to know me and took time with me. I felt they respected me.”
For the last eight months, Denise has worked full-time as a security officer for a domestic violence shelter that serves women with children. She enjoys her work immensely. The day Denise moved into her apartment, she shouted, “Lord, You have been good to me!” She then sat down and cried tears of gratitude.
Denise’s story is about age discrimination, isolation, and hope. Although she had a solid work history and experience, Denise struggled to find a job which caused her long stretch of homelessness. She sees her arrival at Cornerstone as a turning point in her life. Once she had shelter and support, she climbed out of the situation she was stuck in. We have been blessed by her stay and applaud the employer that saw what we see in Denise – a resilient, enthusiastic, hard-working woman who simply needed a job.
Denise Hardy, as told to Beth Nicholls, originally published on November 25, 2015
I hope you enjoyed reading how Denise moved from isolation in her storage unit to hope and opportunity at Cornerstone and beyond. CCO needs your support to continue the critical work of welcoming anyone experiencing homelessness. Please consider donating today. Your gift could transform lives and bring hope to those who need it most. Click here to visit our Donate Page. Thank you!
From the CCO Archive: Carla’s story was originally published in September of 2013.
“The night before I came to CCO, I slept out on a park bench. I said I would never stay in a shelter. And what did God do? He put me right in a shelter and blessed me there.
I thought people in a shelter had to sleep on the floor. I was afraid that people would steal my stuff and that it would be dirty. I thought I would have to leave in the early morning and stay out all day. Naomi House has been totally different. I have a case manager, three meals a day, I didn’t have to sleep on the floor or leave during the day. It isn’t dirty. I’ve improved mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.”
“Recently, I got a housing call and I was told, ‘It’s a go! Start packing!’ I have a place and I’m so excited about my little apartment! It’s perfect for me. And it makes me think about how good God is!”
-Carla, as told to Beth Nicholls
It would be difficult to talk to Carla and miss her determination and gratitude. After months of hard work, Carla turned the key to her own apartment. She looks back on her experience at the Naomi Shelter for Women as a stepping stone to stable housing. It has been a joy to work alongside her! Congratulations Carla!
Carla came to Naomi Shelter for Women from a park bench. Many shelter guests are welcomed into CCO after sleeping in doorways, vehicles, city buses, trains, and other places not intended for human habitation. In 2021, 30% of shelter guests entering the Naomi Men or Women’s Shelter Programs were “sleeping rough” the night before. Sleeping outside diminishes the physical and mental health of people experiencing homelessness. It makes them vulnerable to sleep deprivation, hunger, and violence.
Please stand with Cornerstone by helping to provide safe shelter space and permanent housing for Chicagoans experiencing poverty and homelessness. Your donation will ensure that beds, meals, and wrap-around services that available to someone sleeping on the street tonight. Click here to donate today!
“Gardening feeds my soul, and I’m so happy to share it with others.” -Laura Thiessen, CCO Gardener
Long-time CCO volunteer Laura Thiessen had dreams of establishing a healing, fertile space that would benefit CCO shelter guests. In 2021, Laura’s vision of creating a tranquil, productive garden for shelter guests on the Hannah Shelter rooftop became a reality.
“I love to use gardening as a tool to connect with people. It’s an honor to bring gardening and green space to CCO’s shelter guests. Several women from the Naomi Shelter and myself planted calendula flowers this week. Even amidst the sleeping, winter-browned garden, the Naomi ladies were soaking in the sunshine and enjoying the outdoors. One Naomi guest had planted carrots in her garden bucket last year. We had so much fun digging them up, sharing them, and laughing at the different sizes. I believe that human interactions and garden spaces like this one can revive the soul, unite, and empower us. We can enjoy the outdoors, grow what herbs and produce we can, right where we are, and fellowship together. It’s a joy to see the happiness the garden brings to all ages. It awakens the wonder of nature and gives us a platform to grow seeds of hope!”
Along with delicious produce, vibrant and fun programs have grown from the rooftop garden project. Women at the Naomi Shelter have enjoyed learning how to make Herbs N Me Hand Cream with Laura. The hand cream is made from calendula flowers and other natural materials from the CCO Rooftop Garden.
Tuesday Tea is CCO’s weekly garden party (weather permitting). The casual gathering takes place in the CCO Garden on the Hannah Shelter roof. Women and children from the Hannah Shelter are welcome to join the Naomi Women, many of whom have planted and nurtured the garden. Delicious tea is brewed from the herbs found in the raised beds. Everyone joins in watering plants and picking produce that is ready to eat. Tuesday Tea is a time to celebrate the success of the rooftop garden project and enjoy the people and plants that occupy the space. The children join in on the gardening fun or play on the rooftop playground nearby.
“Grace,” a Naomi Women’s shelter guest, grew a tiny watermelon and enjoyed sharing it with everyone at Tuesday Tea. After taking a bite, she danced around the picnic table and sang, “I’m a farmer!” Grace danced for the sheer joy of nurturing and growing fruit that she could share with others. Recently, Grace moved from the Naomi Women’s program into her apartment, and she’s coming back to volunteer her time and energy into the garden.
Laura and the garden ladies have hopes for a produce booth at a local Chicago Farmers Market. Last year, the garden produced cucumbers, watermelon, butternut squash, sweet peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, sunflowers, kale, lettuce, broccoli, basil, dill, fennel, calendula, lilacs, cosmos, and wildflowers. Laura is looking to the future and, with the help of CCO shelter guests, planting the seeds she carefully saved from last year. She hopes they will produce a beautiful and life-giving space that brings hope and recovery to those sheltered at CCO.
The garden and all its vibrant outcroppings would not be possible without the generous support of Gethsemane Gardens and Hearthstone Terrace, two local businesses that know the value of the natural world in healing and uniting people. Thank you! And thank you, Laura, for creating a space that teaches, restores, and revives!
Please consider donating to CCO today! Your gift will ensure safe shelter and supportive services for families and single adults experiencing homelessness. Click here to visit our Donation Page. Thank you!