This morning, I woke up, and my eyes literally did not want to open. Not out of exhaustion, but because they were so uncomfortably dry. I attribute it to a combination of excessive A/C to combat this overbearing heat and my LASIK surgery 18 months ago that occasionally leaves me wondering if my eyes have been relocated to the Sahara desert while I’m still in Chicago.
I knew the solution before I even realized the problem. I stopped at CVS on my way to work and picked up a bottle of eye drops. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention as I grabbed them, and suffered a mini-bout of sticker shock at the register. Sixteen dollars. Ugh. So I pulled out my debit card and begrudgingly handed it to the cashier while silently cursing at my eyes for being so difficult.
It really sucks that my $16 went to CVS and the jerks that make Systane eye drops, but let’s be honest, my bank account will survive. When I go to the grocery store on Sunday to pick up food for the week, my card will not be declined. I will have totally forgotten about this morning’s liquid gold eye drops ($16 for a .667 ounce bottle—imagine if you converted that cost to gallons like gasoline!?). And in a few months, if my eyes act up and decide to hate me once again, I’ll probably rummage through my purse, wondering where I left those silly drops, and when they don’t appear, I’ll run into CVS again to grab another (expensive) bottle.
I’m lucky. I know it. While I certainly didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I could afford my prescription or grocery bill. Nearly everyone feels broke in college, but my perceived poverty mostly affected my drinking habits (pre-game before the bars) and dietary choices (Out for dinner? No way!—more like mac and cheese, my college staple).
And even now, with my husband in school full-time—yes, that means no income for two years—we have planned well and have enough cash stashed away so we aren’t frantic when the rent is due. Sure, we’re not going out to eat as much as we used to and I’m trying to scale back on the shopping, but we’re fine.
Not everyone is that lucky. And that has never been more apparent to me than in the past three months, since I began my new job at The ARK. The ARK’s primary mission is to create a safety net for Chicagoland Jews in need by providing vital human services within a framework of Jewish values and laws. The mission statement is vague, but I can paint a picture of what that looks like.
As I drove past The ARK at 8:45 a.m. to detour to CVS, there was a line six people deep outside the building (we open at 9), waiting to take a number to see the dentist. Most of them haven’t had the money to see a dentist in years and they aren’t just popping in for the regular old tooth cleaning and cavity check—they are treating infections, receiving free dentures, and having complex procedures. And they are finally getting in after waiting nearly two months on the waiting list. (Know any Jewish dentists? We have about a dozen who volunteer their time in our dental clinic and it’s still not enough to meet the needs of Chicago’s uninsured Jews in need. Same goes for doctors in the medical clinic!)
As I am typing this article at my desk, there are four volunteers in the food pantry helping clients of The ARK assemble their monthly food packages. Most of the recipients of food from The ARK are already enrolled in Illinois’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that helps low-income residents buy the food they need for good health. This governmental aid helps recipients get through about three weeks worth of groceries each month and covers only items that go in your mouth (think about things like toilet paper, shampoo, or diapers for your baby). The ARK steps in to cover that gap and help our clients stay afloat by providing toiletries, paper goods and nutritious kosher food. We’re Jews—we feed each other, it’s what we do.
Outside the entrance of the food pantry is a table where we place dozens of boxes of matzah each morning. Local grocery stores donate it here by the boat-load once Passover ends (because who would really want to eat it when it wasn’t a mandatory holiday requirement? I’m fairly certain that if I had to make a list of my top three least favorite foods, matzah would be number one). The Passover Hagaddah describes matzah as lechem onim—the bread of the poor—and it was not until I witnessed the sheer amount of needy Chicagoans who take it home in July to feed their families that I understood why the moniker lechem onim really fits the bill.
Before I worked at The ARK, I imagined The ARK’s clients as elderly Jews and recent immigrants, but what is most baffling is that many of the people who frequent the pantry and the medical clinic look just like you or me—they are recently laid off professionals, elderly Jews who have outlived their retirement savings, mothers with young children, middle-aged suburbanites, and Jews from the former Soviet Union. They are people from the suburbs and city and from all walks of Jewish life. Most of them never would have thought that they would ever become a client of The ARK.
And I imagine that many of them never thought they would blink an eye at a $16 price tag on a bottle of eye drops. Certainly puts life into perspective.