SYCAMORE – When James Zielinski first heard his wife Julie’s idea of opening up their basement as a hub for donations for people in need, he didn’t know if the idea would work.
“I didn’t think people would donate items, and I was shocked,” James Zielinski said. “I grew up in Detroit, a big city. [The DeKalb County] community’s not a big community, but they give with their hearts. People post that they need something and the next thing you know, it shows up on our doorstep: throw rugs, a chair lift, a breast pump.”
Julie Zielinski describes DeKalb County Strong as “a place for those in need to get help with food, clothing and household goods for free.”
Zielinski began DeKalb County Strong after wanting to help the families displaced in the St. Albans Green apartment fire in July. Since then, she has helped more than 200 families in the DeKalb and Sycamore area. Zielinski also hosted a wish tree, helping 40 families receive items for the holidays.
Although there is a sign-in sheet when someone visits the donation hub, the only questions asked are name, city and family size. A family member can sign up for an appointment time to privately look through the items available once every 30 days.
Items at DeKalb County Strong include clothing, shoes, toys, household goods, books, hygiene items, home décor and nonperishable food, such as cereals and soups.
Clothing is available in all sizes and ages, separated by size. Seasonal clothing, such as hats, jackets and boots are on display during the winter and summer clothing, such as shorts and sandals, are available during warmer months.
Clothing must be in good condition with no rips, tears or stains and toys must be complete. Baby bouncers and cribs are accepted, but no other furniture.
Saunya Shaff of Sycamore has visited DeKalb County Strong twice and has also donated clothing.
Her 7-year-old daughter received gifts from the wish tree, which Shaff said added an extra couple of gifts under their tree and a huge smile on her daughter’s face on Christmas.
“I think that [DeKalb County Strong] is phenomenal and a great asset to the community,” Shaff said. “It really helps people that are struggling. There are a lot of necessities and items you don’t find at food pantries: socks and underwear, bathroom and hygiene products and household items like pots, plates, cups and utensils. Everything is clean and looks brand new.”
Shaff also loves the variety of clothing available.
“It’s difficult to afford clothing when your kids grow so fast, especially now that it’s winter and you need to wear more layers,” Shaff said. “Sometimes I struggle to have warm clothes on my back because my child comes first.”
Karrie Pionke of DeKalb has been on both the giving and receiving end of DeKalb County Strong.
“I first came across it on Facebook, and I was in need of clothing for my four children,” Pionke said. “I loved how friendly and personable Julie was and how organized and anonymous it was. Now I’m constantly looking for things to donate, I want to give back and help others. I have two bags full of items I’m waiting to drop off.”
Zielinski said that most people hug her as they leave, some with tears in their eyes from gratitude.
“I do what I do not for recognition, but because I want to help,” she said. “I do it because I’ve been there, in their shoes. I know what it’s like. At one point, my husband spent six months on unemployment, we worried about bills and food and struggled. I’ve been there, which is why I want to help, and I couldn't do it without the donations from others in the community."
Sue Thatcher, Zielinski’s neighbor and friend describes her as a “Good Samaritan with a big heart.”
“She collects donated items for families in need, helping make their lives better,” Thatcher said. “There’s so much bad in the world and negativity. With donations from people in the community, she’s helping make a positive difference.”
Shaff describes Zielinski as “a lifesaver.”
“I’d just want to tell her, ‘Thank you so much for all you do because you’re a blessing in our community,’” Shaff said. “She opens her home to help people in need. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing something like this. It’s nice to know that there are caring people out there, affecting the world positively.”