OLYMPIA FIELDS - The news that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was assessing a local facility to temporarily house unaccompanied alien children that had come into the U.S. from Central America was a total surprise, a village official told Illinois Review Monday.
"The mayor called me about it 6:47 am Monday morning, and we were surpised to hear about it as much as our residents were," Village Administrator David Mekarski told Illinois Review. "We want the people of Olympia Fields to know that we weren't hiding anything - we simply didn't know about it until this morning."
Mekarski said the city began getting media requests about the federal government's intentions to move children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into a local facility that is owned by a Pentecostal church. The All Nations Assembly, which has available residential quarters on its 20 acre property, had been approached by HHS and informed they were being considered for emergency arrangements.
"The property is unique, and it does have room and facilities that could be used to care for numerous residents, but there's a lot of building code and occupancy requirements that the All Nations would need to meet before anyone could move in," Mekarski said.
After all the buzz created by Congressman Randy Hultgren informing Chicago area media of HHS plans to use the Olympia Fields facility for the immigrant children with little or no adult supervision to be provided housing and care, the HHS notified Hultgren's office Monday morning they were no longer considering the former monastery at 203rd and Governor's Highway as a potential site.
All Nations' Pastor Oliver Akano failed to notify village officials of HHS' plans until media attention brought him into the village hall Monday afternoon. He was met by two television news sources looking for an interview about HHS' plans. A message left a the church office was not returned.
"We've been working with Pastor Oliver to turn that facility into a resident for homeless veterans," Mekarski told Illinois Review. "The Board of Trustees and the planning commission are 100 percent open to Pastor Oliver's idea to care for homeless veterans at the facility. We are waiting for him to get to us a viable business plan as to how he'll make it work and fund itself."
However, there are specific health and safety standards that must be met in order to use the dormitories and meeting rooms for 20 to 30 homeless veterans, Mekarski said.
"We're open to charitable causes and can meet the challeges they present," Mekarski said. "We can move pretty quickly to serve the needy, but we will follow protocol for the safety and protection of the residents and those that will be providing the service. We want citizen input."
Mekarski said the numerous news stories and television features released throughout the weekend and Monday morning, without sourcing statement from local officials, did a great disservice to their local and regional community.
"The Village has been inundated with calls from residents and businesses alike, voicing their concern of why this consideration was made without citizen input. We want them to know Olympia Fields officials had nothing to do with the arrangement made between the HHS and All Nations, and that they would stick to the village's regulations for public hearing notice.
“The former Tolentine Monastery, now occupied by the All Nations Assembly Church, is currently zoned as Residential. Any consideration for an orphanage or this type of use, whether temporary or permanent, requires a public hearing by the Village’s Planning and Zoning Commission and approval by the Village’s Board of Trustees for both a Text Amendment to the Zoning Code, as well as, a Special Use Permit," an Olympia Fields press release said.
"In addition, as the use would involve the care and custody of children, special licensing would be required by both the Village, as well as, the State of Illinois. Lastly, the building currently does not meet building and Life Safety Codes required for occupancy."
As of the 2010 census, the racial makeup of Olympia Fields was 25.3% white, 69.5% black or African American, 0.1% American Indian or Alaska Native, 2.3% Asian, 0.8% some other race, and 1.9% two or more races. Latino residents of any race made up 2.5% of the population.