Spending the Christmas season over 2,000 miles from home, Venezuelan migrants in the Chicago area were able to enjoy a special holiday party Monday hosted by the Salvation Army, accompanied by traditional cuisine and a surprise visit from Bears linebacker Matthew Adams.
The party was complete with a variety of traditional Venezuelan foods, including rice, beans, chicken, beef and fried plantains, thanks to a $5,000 donation from the Bears. Salvation Army also brought some early Christmas gifts to children with donated toys and a performance of Christmas carols by a local church. The party concluded with a visit from Adams, who gave out Bears hats and took photos with dozens of partygoers.
With Christmas around the corner, Jessica Martinez, captain of the Salvation Army’s North & Central Illinois Division, said the staff thought about what they could do for Venezuelan migrants who are staying in their shelter and missing home during the holiday season.
“We thought, ‘Let’s bring some Venezuelan food. Let’s have some Venezuelan drinks. Let’s gather all of our friends together,’” Martinez said. “Christmas is all about being together.”
She said people shared how excited they were to eat a meal that felt more familiar to home, with some having left their home country months ago or even a few years ago. Gathering around tables in the Salvation Army’s Freedom Center, she said these families have been able to connect with one another at the shelter. During visits, she often sees kids play together.
“That’s what we hope, to give them a sense of home,” Martinez said.
As people partook in the meal, ministers from a local church in Little Village came to play the cuatro, a guitar-like instrument, and lead Christmas carols in Spanish. People sang along to classics such as “Feliz Navidad,” as well as Venezuelan songs.
Nothing could quite prepare organizers for the response to the arrival of Adams, who was met with loud cheers and excitement. The reaction surpassed the expectations of Ellyn Harris, deputy executive director of development and communications of the NCI division of the Salvation Army.
“About 200 people lined up to take photos with him,” Harris said. “They were all wearing the hats. They were so excited.”
She said the Bears have long been “generous” partners with the Salvation Army, helping with food drives and food boxes across the city and suburbs.
“They’re just fantastic partners,” she said. “We’re very grateful to our supporters. There’s a greater need right now, so we appreciate as much help as possible.”
About 150 families from Venezuela are receiving aid and shelter from the Salvation Army, she said. Many came in on buses from Texas since the summer. The organization providing comprehensive services and social services at the center, from food to shelter to legal needs to after school programs.
At a time when feelings of isolation and homesickness can hit especially hard, the Salvation Army wanted to make families feel special.
“We provide hope for people in need, wherever they’re at,” Harris said. “It’s very meaningful to them, and it’s so heartening to see that the children are happy. It’s what the Salvation Army is all about.”
There is more need than ever, according to Harris. She said donations are down due to recent economic hardships and food insecurity and homelessness are on the rise.
“When some of these families first arrived, we sat and watched them eat for two hours straight because they were so hungry,” Harris said. “Having sponsors help us is really, really key to continue our work.”
Josibeth Trompiz and her young son, who sat in a stroller next to her, have been in Chicago for a month. She said she has been missing her other three children, ages 10, 17 and 20, who are staying with her mother back in Venezuela. She has been staying in touch with them through What’s App and FaceTime, but Christmastime just doesn’t feel the same without them, she said.
She normally prepares hallacas, a traditional Venezuelan holiday dish similar to tamales. While not quite the same, the meal with Salvation Army helps her feel more connected to family, she said.
“It makes me feel closer to home,” Trompiz said.
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