On Sunday, families arrived at the grounds of Grace and Peace Church, 1856 N. Leclaire Ave., to get free book bags and other school supplies for the upcoming school year. For many newly arrived families, these supplies come in handy as they get their kids ready to attend school in the United States for the first time.
“As children head back to the classroom later this month, we saw the need to prepare our community for a successful school year,” Pastor John Zayas said in a press release. “Our goal is to give our students, especially those from recently arrived families who are new to the neighborhood, the essential supplies they need for academic achievement.”
The event also welcomed families of nearby communities to its giveaway and free lunch from the local restaurant Taqueria La Paz, sponsored by food delivery platform DoorDash. Besides school supplies, the church distributed free clothes, personal hygiene supplies and other items.
Nestled in the 10-acre North Austin community center, the Christian-based church continues to serve as a refuge for migrant families from Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries. As previously reported, in 2022 the church volunteered to help the city’s Office of Emergency Management receive migrants bused from Texas. Later, it turned most of the building’s third floor into a temporary shelter for families, housing up to 100 individuals at some points.
Many of them have now found permanent housing in nearby areas but continue to lean on the North Austin church as they seek to stabilize themselves and start a new life.
“Our church is relatively small, but we have large efforts,” JohnEric Zayas, associate pastor said, adding up to 150 people attend a regular Sunday service.
With the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers, the church no longer provides temporary shelter. Yet, it expanded its community services to offer them case management, faith services, summer programs and access to community events, like this year’s back-to-school gathering. Simultaneously, these programs serve long-time residents of nearby communities.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the church runs a food pantry which serves up to 325 people each day. At the pantry, an individual can get a cart worth $200 of food for their families. It is open to residents of seven Chicago ZIP codes. Most of the food is donated by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, with other donations from local and national retailers the church partners with. As an extension to the pantry, the church often distributes household items, furniture, clothes, cleaning supplies, toys and many other items that are donated to them by national retailers like Costco and Target.
The need for the pantry is so prevalent that construction for a new pantry building is underway. At the height of the pandemic, the church served up to 500 people a day, said associate pastor JohnEric Zayas. The new pantry is expected to be completed by the fall when it will operate daily and serve residents of Chicago’s Northwest and West Side across 10 ZIP codes.
Next to the pantry, the church created its own case management office for asylum seekers and migrants, serving up to 50 families per week. Three case managers help families and migrants with job placement, housing opportunities, following up on their asylum cases, and completing tasks like getting a Chicago ID, enrolling for school and other activities they need to complete to be self-sufficient.
At the church, families can also find activities for children, learn about existing athletic and after-school programs hosted at the community center, and equally important, find a community.
“Many of the families that we had in these spaces were with us long term and actually began assisting with programming,” Zayas Jr. said. “They were just immensely helpful in being able to navigate the needs and advocate for people coming in.”
Dozens of children, including migrant children, participated in the church’s summer camp, where they started getting familiar with the local environment and building social skills as they navigate a new country and language.
There, they can also learn about available athletic and after-school programs run by on-site partners By the Hand Club and Intentional Sports, which also ran its first summer programs at the new community center.
The Zayas family is key to the church’s success. Senior pastor John Zayas took over the church in 2001. Iliana Zayas, his wife, pastor, 1st Lady and CEO of the community center, supports the church in running community programs. Son JohnEric Zayas, associate pastor and a former teacher, co-administers the church’s operations in addition to his ministry duties. The church recently applied to be a recipient of state funds to continue to provide services to migrants and has plans to bring more programs, supported by its congregation and strategic partners.
“Our senior pastor and my father has been doing this type of work for over 35 years,” Zayas Jr. said. “So many connections, lots of vision for how we can serve our community in greater depth.”