When busloads of migrants started arriving in Chicago, Evelyn Figueroa stepped up. More than 18,000 have come so far, most sent from Texas with little warning, leaving the city ill equipped to care for them. Figueroa, a UI Health doctor, worked with UIC medical students Sara Izquierdo and Sarah Cooper to organize a team of nurses, physicians, and physicians-in-training. The group — more than 150 now — travels the city, triaging migrants, providing them over-the-counter medications, directing them to centers that treat chronic health conditions. Since May, they have done more than 7,000 health screenings at O’Hare and emergency shelters. 

Figueroa isn’t just helping through medical care. Hundreds of migrants have received food, clothing, and basic supplies from the Pilsen Food Pantry, which she founded in 2018. The pantry had been serving about 500 South and West Side households a week. Now that number is up to 800. Tents, clothing, food, water, and medical supplies line the walls of the pantry’s 8,000-square-foot space at 21st and Ashland, which also serves as the supply hub for the ad hoc migrant shelter at the 12th District police station. 

“If I get into a space and get to have influence, I’m always like, Well, who am I bringing with me?”

When Figueroa, a Little Village resident, looks at her new neighbors, she is reminded of her own roots. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, she grew up in Albany Park. Her mother never finished high school, only later earning a GED. Her grandmother, who lived with them, had to drop out in third grade when her own mother died during childbirth. “My grandma tried so hard to push me forward and not let me suffer in the ways she suffered,” Figueroa says. “And so I take care of all these little Latina grandmas. When I think about doing stuff, I always think about who it’s for. So if I get into a space and get to have influence, I’m always like, Well, who am I bringing with me?”

Her answer: As many people as she can carry. Which is why Figueroa’s medical students know to never say “Someone should …” in her earshot. “Residents in meetings would be like, ‘Someone should …,’ and I’d be like, ‘Are you volunteering?’ I’m very much a person who doesn’t sit on my hands.” Not when those hands could be feeding and healing humanity. Because someone should.

Video by Ross Feighery