What started out as a response to children in need during the pandemic has turned into a fulltime passion for Yeulanda Degala of Arlington Heights, and her efforts have not gone unnoticed.
At Shelter, Inc.’s major gala last month, the organization bestowed Degala and her Good Neighbors Network with its biggest honor, the Buckholz Award. The award was created to honor the memory of Arlington Heights Police Officer Paul Buckholz, whose vision to find residents who would open their home to take in children in crisis, resulted in the founding of Shelter, Inc.
Since its start in 1975, Shelter has evolved to meet the urgent needs of children and young adults throughout the Chicago area. Its programs include two emergency group homes, a transitional living program, foster care, a child abuse prevention program, mental health counseling and help for young people experiencing homelessness.
Consequently, the Buckholz Award goes to “a person or organization who has significantly impacted the community and emulates the true spirit of Shelter’s origins of taking positive action.”
This year, Shelter officials selected Degala, for her vision of helping meet student needs during extraordinary times — and acting on it.
“She’s a testament to the power of caring,” says Carina Santa Maria, executive director of Shelter. “And she’s proving, just like Paul Buckholtz did, that when neighbors come together to help neighbors, the possibilities are endless.”
Degala sprung into action in 2020, when schools shut down and free and reduced-fee lunches weren’t yet available for kids. Acting on impulse, she and her friend, Rachel Hooker, created a Facebook page as a way to rally neighbors to help local families put food on the table. The response was overwhelming and their donations overtook her front porch for the next year.
Now, she has grown this network of volunteers to provide everything from school supplies to birthday gifts to scholarships and more. In 2022, Degala formalized her grassroots campaign into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and she and her “helpers” meet immediate needs of students and their families in four Northwest suburban school districts, as well as collaborate with other nonprofits.
Over this holiday season alone, they sponsored a gift drive — their fourth annual — which provided 95 area families with individually wrapped gifts.
Degala and Hooker already received the Community Spirit Heart of Gold Award from the Village of Arlington Heights and a Distinguished Service Award from District 214, both in 2021, but the Shelter award is different, she says.
As the daughter of a single mother, growing up in Florida, she relied on the free and reduced-fee lunches at school. She describes coming from an economically depressed community, where expectations to succeed were low.
“The programs offered by Shelter resonated with me,” Degala says, “because these children and young adults are just trying to make it out, but face such an uphill battle.”
Being recognized by Shelter, she says, serves as a testament to the potential for change when communities unite for a common purpose.
“In the face of challenges that seem insurmountable, the award reminds me that together, through collaborative efforts, we have the power to make a significant difference in the lives of those in our community,” Degala adds. “Success, to me, is measured by the positive impact we can have — helping students access essential items at school without stigma, preventing them from going to bed hungry, or ensuring they are warm.”