This year, the Chicago Polar Bear Club is honored to support three deserving families:
Verbena Rogers & Family
Verbena Rogers and her sons, Thaddeus, 12, and Vashaun, 20, live in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. Verbena is an open, welcoming person who has an enormous amount of love for those around her.
Unfortunately, Verbena and her family have faced a difficult set of circumstances over the past several years: In 2010, Verbena was diagnosed with breast cancer. After going through treatment, she went into remission. Shortly after, Verbena began having pain in her back, which she attributed to muscle spasms, something she had experienced before. However, after the pain began to become unmanageable, a series of hospital visits uncovered that she was now suffering from bone cancer. Though she is now receiving regular radiation treatments at Northwestern, she has been challenged to find ways to manage transportation to and from these treatments. On top of her own care, she is also supporting her mother-in-law, who is also battling cancer at the same time.
After Verbena’s diagnosis, her eldest son, Vashaun, who was attending college, left school to help support his family. He got a job to help with bills and does his best to arrange transportation to and from treatment for his mom. He is currently studying to get his license and is hoping to purchase a car so he can more easily take his mom to her cancer treatment sessions. What he’d like most is to have a healthy family, and to return to school.
At home, Verbena spends most nights sleeping in the living room for two reasons: one, she wants each of her children to have a room for themselves, and two, because her pain now prevents her from sleeping comfortably in a bed.
Despite everything Verbena is dealing with, she remains an incredibly positive and thoughtful person. The love she has for her children is clear, and she also shares her positivity as a shoulder to lean on for others going through their own struggles. She spoke fondly of spending time with others going through similar cancer treatments, and is an inspiration to those around her.
Nicole Rendon & Family
Nicole Rendon is a strong person -- strong in spirit, strong in opinion, and also in appearance. When arranging to meet her she said “You can’t miss me, I have pink hair.” And yes, though her pink hair is striking, it is by far the least impressive thing about her.
Nicole married her high school sweetheart, Freddy, and is the mother of two children, Adrian, 18, and Bianca, 23. For years, Nicole’s husband was on dialysis due to kidney failure resulting from a childhood illness. Knowing she had to support her family, Nicole trained to be a paramedic and worked constantly to do so. After a number of years of Nicole being the sole provider, Freddy fortunately regained his health, and as a self-trained plumber, began his own business, allowing Nicole to take time off of work and spend more time with the family.
Though things seemed to finally be going well, something silent and undetected quickly turned the family’s life upside down. In the summer of 2014, Nicole’s husband committed suicide.
After the incident, Nicole went back to work to ensure she could continue to provide for her family. The stress of such a traumatic loss combined with her work as a paramedic has had lasting tolls. On top of this, Nicole was later diagnosed with Lupus, which rendered her unable to continue her work as a paramedic. Shortly after, her mother passed away. Challenged on multiple fronts, Nicole now worries about providing for her family, including not knowing how to pay for a gravestone for her mother – a woman who was the kind of person who brought her makeup bag to the hospital with her – who deserves a proper headstone.
Through all of this, it is humbling to see how much Nicole genuinely cares about others. She recognizes that through her story of difficulty and healing she can be a voice for others. Once fully ready, she hopes to one day become an advocate for others who are challenged by similar circumstances. In the meantime, Nicole is determinedly focused on getting better, driven by a desire to care for her family, and help others with similar emotional trauma heal themselves.
Diamond & Lamonte Lay (& Family)
Lamonte and Diamond Lay, and their two girls, Lakota, 5, and Icyst, 2, reside in Chicago’s South Side. When asked about his daughters, Lamonte always says
“My girls mean the world to me – they brighten my day when I’m at my lowest,
they’re my biggest influence to continue to move forward”.
Diamond and Lamonte have been together since 2007, and they both work tirelessly to provide for their family. What is impressive about the Lay’s is not just how hard they work to provide for their family, but the work they choose to do. They have both found employment that has direct and meaningful impact on others.
Currently, Diamond drives for PACE, where she transports elderly and disabled patients to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, and back home; a noble job, but for which she receives minimum wage.
Lamonte works at the Precious Blood Ministry in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside. He first started working there when he volunteered to do administrative work in exchange for a winter coat; and he has been there ever since. At the Ministry, he assembles a magazine of poems and artwork submitted to the ministry by incarcerated individuals, and works as a mentor for individuals affected by gangs. In his role, he is an inspiration and a advisor to the ministry’s youth, constantly encouraging them to stay out of gangs and go to school.
During the CPBC’s visit to the ministry, Lamonte was our tour guide – It was incredible to see the work being done there, and learn firsthand how involved and passionate Lamonte and Diamond are about their community.
As two working parents, Diamond and Lamonte have to put their youngest in daycare, which is a significant expense on top of the list of expenses for a family of four with two growing girls.
As their daughters are getting older, they worry more about their future. Diamond and Lamonte both grew up in the neighborhood and know that the schools are subpar. They worry about the education and opportunity their local schools have to offer. Both Lamonte and Diamond want to give their children a better life than they had growing up, and work hard each day to do just that. As Diamond told us
“It stops with me, my girls will have better.”