HUNTLEY – Kathleen Wiedenfield is doing whatever she can to reverse decades of hardships for a small township in Kankakee County – even if it’s by helping one neighbor at a time.
Motivated by Oprah Winfrey, Wiedenfield, a Huntley resident, set out two years ago to try and improve the living quality of the 2,140 people who live in Pembroke Township, an eastern Illinois community bordering Indiana that has been ravaged by extreme poverty.
Many Pembroke residents still live by third-world standards, often lacking clean running water and adequate indoor plumbing. Former governors and wealthy philanthropists have tried and failed to fix the plight of Pembroke.
“I feel very strongly that life in Pembroke isn’t the way things should be,” Wiedenfield said. “If we can only change things one neighbor at a time, that’s the way we do it.”
Wiedenfield’s mission has so far been met with modest success. A mother and retailer, Wiedenfield first took interest in Pembroke in 2005, after she watched Oprah’s special program on the township’s poverty-stricken history.
Located almost 70 miles south of Chicago, Pembroke’s predominantly black population has a per capita income of $11,822, U.S. Census data shows. Almost 26 percent of the population is below the federal poverty level and about half of the township’s population aren’t considered to be in the labor force.
Wiedenfield, who visits Pembroke about once a week, initially reached out to federal and state lawmakers to bring their attention to the area. Frustrated by the response, she took matters into her own hands.
She sent out almost 1,000 mailings in 2010 to Pembroke residents, asking whether they needed assistance. Using the responses, Wiedenfield has raised money in a piecemeal fashion and provided basic necessities for three Pembroke residents.
She first paired with Pembroke resident Keith Bobo, who approached her about helping after receiving the mailing. The two then helped a 39-year-old woman receive running water after her well went dry late in 2010.
The woman, Wiedenfield said, would travel 10 minutes to her sister’s place to fill water jugs to use for showering and flushing her toilet at home.
Wiedenfield and Bobo raised $800 to build the woman a deeper, more effective water well. From there, the two officially formed an organization devoted to helping Pembroke, called “One Neighbor at a Time.”
The group also has raised money to establish running water for a 69-year-old woman, who had gone 18 months without a free-flowing water supply. They currently are building a new foundation and water supply for another elderly Pembroke woman.
The group has raised $20,000 total for the three projects. Wiedenfield said the group’s incremental strategy ensures that Pembroke residents receive basic needs, such as water, food and shelter.
“We are trying to get them the basic necessities that I think everybody is entitled to,” Wiedenfield said, adding, “I’ve never wanted this to be about me, ... It’s about the people who need help.”