‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Des Plaines | Chicago News
Des Plaines is a suburb of Chicago known for its forest preserves and as the site of headquarters for several major corporations. It’s a diverse city, with a growing population of more than 58,000 people, located just North of O’Hare Airport.
Interactive map: More from our community reporting series
The city’s seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases, prompting area schools to host pop-up vaccine clinics.
“Throughout the last several weeks, (the rate has) been climbing a little bit. We’re right around 3.92% for our ZIP codes,” said Paul Hertel, superintendent of Des Plaines School District 62. “As we speak, I think we have 8 positive cases and about 32 kids that are on quarantine.”
Algonquin Middle School has partnered with the Illinois Department of Public Health to host a series of COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
“Between the authorizations of the Pfizer vaccine and the Johnson and Johnson, and the mandates from the state – and the fact they have been around, and people have got the vaccine without a lot of side effects – those hesitant people are coming in,” said Donna Zenger, District 62 nurse.
The middle school is one of dozens of schools in the area that are back in session and have welcomed students into the classroom. Administrators here say they are taking all the precautions to keep students and staff safe.
“Over 99% of our kids have returned,” Hertel said. “We have great mitigations in place. Our greatest challenge has been in our lunchrooms, maintaining that six foot (distance). We’ve been able to do it, but at some of our schools we’re using our gym during the lunch hour.”
At the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce, executive director Andrea Biwer has been at the forefront of helping businesses stay afloat.
“When the pandemic hit businesses, we were looking for information. We tried to answer as many questions as we possibly could. If we didn’t have the answer, we found somebody that did,” Biwer said. “We also started a video series to help create awareness about the businesses that were taking curbside.”
One of those businesses was American Wild Burger.
“There was a point in time we couldn’t find hand sanitizer, we couldn’t find masks. There was a local chamber member (who) sewed some masks for our staff,” said co-owner Sylvia Talavera. “At a time when everyone was isolating and staying apart from everyone, we were just trying to keep connected.”
Talavera’s husband and brother-in-law opened the restaurant eight years ago. Despite hitting hard times, the Talavera family wanted to give back and started free lunch Fridays.
“They are a family of seven kids. Because of that, my husband has a huge heart, and my brother-in-law as well,” Talavera said. “They know what it’s like to struggle sometimes when you’re a huge family like that. They wanted to do whatever they could to help out. They were brought up to always help people.”
Self-Help Closet and Food Pantry has worked with businesses like American Wild Burger to host the Red Barrel program, an initiative offering free food donations for those in need.
“Before the pandemic we had about 400 hundred Des Plaines households on our books,” said Self Help’s executive director, Debbie Walusiak. “That number has gone up to about 675 households.”
The volunteer-run pantry has been around for 50 years. Walusiak, a longtime Des Plaines resident, says the need for food is increasing.
“Most of the stories I heard had to do with people that either lost their job or had a sick family member they had to take care of,” Walusiak said. “Throughout the pandemic, the theme was ‘I never thought I’d be here.’”
The food pantry also offers clothes and personal care products and is open to the neighborhood twice a week. Walusiak says their mission is to work with the community to help residents navigate the pandemic.
Another anchor in the community is Maryville Academy, which has served children and families in Des Plaines for more than a century.
“Maryville was founded in 1883, so we’ve been working with children and families for a really long time. Although the years have gone by and the names of our programs have changed, our commitment to children and families has remained,” said Nina Aliprandi, associate executive director of Maryville Academy.
While Maryville’s in-person had to be adapted to COVID, Alipran she’s “very proud to tell you that Maryville never shut its doors. Throughout the whole pandemic, we continued to thrive.”
Video: Watch our full interview with Nina Aliprandi
The Chamber’s Biwer hopes to put Des Plaines back on the map as the town finds new ways to reinvent themselves and help businesses survive.
“The business community (is concerned about) the unknown of the future, but also hiring qualified people for their open positions,” Biwer said. The Chamber’s developing a program for businesses to advertise their open positions.
New apartment complexes are under construction in the downtown area, and officials hope to draw new residents to the area. One of the attractions they’re banking is the renovated Des Plaines Theater, a historic venue that sat vacant for many years. After being purchased by the city and rehabbed, it’s set to reopen October 1.
“We expect it to be a major magnet drawing people from all over the area,” said Des Plaines Mayor Andrew Goczkowksi, who’s hopeful it can help bring new energy to the city’s downtown. “I see it being a thriving area where there’s lots of people living in these buildings here that they’re building, going to restaurants, eating outside, going to our new retail that’s opened up. It’ll all be because of magnet things like the theater here.”
Video: Watch our full interview with Des Plaines Mayor Andrew Goczkowksi
Community Reporting Series
“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.