Homer Glen Resident Helps To Provide Holiday Joy For Veterans

HOMER GLEN, IL — Karen Szynkowski has always had a special place in her heart for veterans as the daughter of a World War II veteran and the widow and brother of two other soldiers who served their country in their own ways.

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Szynkowski, the former Homer Township Assessor and the Auxiliary President of the Lockport VFW Post 5788 for the past 13 years, long has understood the issues and needs of those who have served in the military but knows that at certain times of the year — including the holidays —veterans are often forgotten.

In 2017, she set out to change that. Szynkowski worked with the Will County Sheriff’s Department and local police and fire officials to establish the Heroes Helping Heroes program, which hands out gift cards from Meijer to help veterans and their families find a little more joy during the holiday season.

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The program recently provided Meijer gift cards to 50 local kids and 35 veterans as part of the annual shopping spree event that takes place at the Homer Glen Meijer. At times, Szynkowski says that veterans are too proud to ask for assistance in providing holiday gifts – or sometimes to put food on the table for Christmas dinner.

But once they understand that local agencies and store managers from Meijer just want to do something special, their reluctance to accept the gift cards is replaced by wide smiles and gratitude.

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For Szynkowski, whose husband was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, becomes emotional in talking about her connection to the program. But she says that for all of the volunteer work that she inserts into the initiative every year, the response to watching children and families shop is almost indescribable.

“There are so many (veterans) out there who need guidance and help,” Szynkowski told Patch. “I guess (I do this) because I care about them. … It just touches my heart. …That’s what warms my heart. To see a smile on their face.”

Szynkowski works with Gabriella Marcinowski, the case manager at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Joliet, and others who help to identify veterans who may be in need. Szynkowski then personally reaches out to each veteran to provide them with specifics of when the shopping spree will take place.

Even after this year’s event took place, Szynkowski has handed out gift cards to veterans who may not have money to feed their families on Christmas, but who now do, thanks to Meijer.

This year, Szynkowski says she began receiving text messages from families as soon as soon as she got home, thanking her for her efforts. But Szynkowski says that she isn’t the one who deserves the thanks.

Szynkowski says she never knew that her father suffered from post-traumatic syndrome disease when she was growing up. She remembers seeing how veterans coming home from Vietnam were treated upon their return and knows the suffering that many more veterans have endured in their post-military lives. That has encouraged her to do what she can to help them remember they are appreciated.

She says that she tries to live by a mantra she is constantly sharing with her grandchildren: That a smile and kind word go a long way because one never knows what kind of day someone has had. And at the holidays, Szynkowski knows that is especially true.

“(Veterans) need to know how they have touched everybody,” Szynkowski told Patch.

She added: “And sometimes, they’re forgotten.”

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