Thursday, April 17, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'Grandma'

Linda Harper, right, picks out food at the St. Vincent de Paul Center food pantry. She's assisted by Outreach Program Manager Jenny Mohan, left.
To the kids in the St. Vincent de Paul Center’s childhood development program, Linda Harper is simply known as, “Grandma.”

“I help them grow, teach them not to be mean and to get along,” she said, smiling. “It’s rewarding.”

Linda, 65, volunteers at the center about 20 hours per week. She started back in 2011, when her life took an unexpected turn.

“I was working for the CTA, driving trains, but then I had a stroke,” she said.

Soon after, she had another stroke and had to go on disability. She knew she needed help affording food, so she applied for SNAP benefits, but they weren’t enough. That’s when she started coming to the St. Vincent de Paul Center’s food pantry.

“It helps me out with things I don’t have enough money to get at the grocery store,” she said. “I like the canned fruit. They also give me produce, bread, ground beef and more. It helps me last the month.”

It has been a long recovery from her two strokes, but Linda has overcome the obstacles.

“At first, I could barely walk and speak. My right hand would shake and I had a stutter,” she said. “But now, I’m back at 100 percent.”

As for her role as “Grandma,” she’s just happy to help the children.

“I think sometimes they get confused, calling me grandma at school and then having a grandma at home too,” she laughed. “But that’s okay. I’m just happy to be here.”

Friday, April 11, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: A glass half full

Ruben Garcia (left) and Guy Fones (right) recently received fresh produce for the first time at a Producemobile distribution in Evanston.
It’s evident that Ruben Garcia and Guy Fones have been best friends for a long time. They joke around; sometimes even finish each others’ sentences. They went to high school together on the Northwest Side of the city about 30 years ago.

“Guy and I, we’re like brothers,” said Ruben.

On a recent Tuesday, they visited a Greater Chicago Food Depository Producemobile distribution in Evanston. Both were receiving food assistance for the first time.

“This will help my family a lot,” Ruben said. “I’m already seeing things we can cook and use all week.”

Ruben worked in loss prevention for 20 years, but was laid off when the Recession started in 2008. His wife works full time and the family is trying to make ends meet to take care of their two young children.

He finally decided to seek assistance because the family has very little left.

“Basically right now we’re just going with the essentials,” Ruben said. “We have to adjust and live with what we have.”

Ruben found out about the Producemobile at his daughter’s school and called Guy to suggest he come too.

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” Guy said. “I’ll use all of this. I need it.”

Guy was an information technology consultant until being laid off in March 2012. Now receiving $120 per month in SNAP benefits, Guy works part-time in cleaning and sales.

“With the vegetables I’ll get here, I can make a big pot of soup and it will last me about a week,” Guy said.

He came to the Producemobile because his SNAP benefits for the month have already run out. He will not have any money for groceries until his Link card is refilled next month.

While Guy’s situation is difficult, he chooses to maintain a positive attitude.

“I’m two months behind on my car payment and my bank account is in the negative,” he said. “But I’m not giving up.”

Ruben shares that outlook.

 “The glass is half empty or it’s half full,” Ruben said. “I choose to see it half full.”

Friday, April 4, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: A baker's life

Paul Latture used to have a successful career at a commercial bakery, but was laid off in 2011.
Cakes, pies, donuts, cinnamon rolls. You name it and Paul Latture would make it at his job in a commercial bakery. And he loved it.

“I mostly worked on making donuts, but when the mood struck, the other bakers and I would experiment and make things for ourselves,” he smiled, recalling one specific concoction. “Once, we put some butter, cinnamon and apple slices on dough and made a pastry. It was delicious.”

Paul, 64, was laid off in 2011 after working at the bakery for seven years. Now, he can only afford to live in a kitchen-less studio apartment, so he no longer bakes. He hasn't been able to find a job, so he applied for early retirement.

“I've probably filled out 15,000 applications, but nothing,” he said. “I was planning on working well into my 70s.”

He struggles to live on his retirement check - only $604 per month - and $189 per month in SNAP benefits. But once a week, Paul receives a bag of fruit, vegetables, meat and nonperishable food from EZRA Multi-Service Center, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency in Uptown.

“The cost of food, everything, is so high,” he said. “Without EZRA, it would be very, very hard to make it.”

In addition to the bags of food, Paul participates in a monthly cooking program at EZRA, giving him the opportunity to bake again. He also works the Link machine at a nearby farmer’s market, which enables SNAP recipients to purchase produce from the market.

“I really just want to try to help if I can,” he said.

Friday, March 28, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Starting fresh

Renee Phillips visits the Alvernia Food Pantry in Elmwood Park once a month.
Renee Phillips needed a change.

In May, she moved from Florida to Illinois, after being released from prison. She wanted to start over and found a job as a waitress, but was laid off soon after. So, she turned to the Alvernia Food Pantry in Elmwood Park.

“I was homeless for a while, but Alvernia has been amazing. I would be starving if it weren’t for this place,” she said.

Renee received counseling through St. Celestine Church, which manages the pantry. Her future is looking brighter. She found an apartment and is now working full-time in retail.

While she’s slowly building up savings, she still needs the pantry for the essentials.

“I get bread, meat, eggs and vegetables here,” she said. “That’s what keeps me eating.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Fighting cancer, feeding family

David Suarez, a proud U.S. Army Veteran, shares his story at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Many people affectionately know David Suarez as “the Picasso of the South Side.”

David, a 72-year-old Army Veteran proud of his service, built a shrine to the Armed Forces in the front yard of his Canaryville home. He was a general contractor and built his own home, enjoying success in his field.

But in 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer and the treatment quickly began to drain his savings.

“I didn’t want to go to a pantry at first because of pride. Foolish pride,” he said.

But David, now a three-time cancer survivor, and his wife Barbara, both unable to work, found assistance at the Union Avenue UMC church food pantry near their home.

“I realized how helpful the people there were and how important the food was to my family,” David said. “Being cared for like that is amazing.”

At Union Avenue, David receives staple items needed to maintain a healthy diet.

“Because of that pantry and the Food Depository, I’ve had the nutrition support that I’ve needed. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been fighting my cancer,” he said.

Friday, March 14, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: 'This pantry is hugely beneficial to me'

Dorothy Oviedo lives in La Grange and receives food assistance from the St. Francis Xavier Food Pantry.
Dorothy Oviedo has been coming to the St. Francis Xavier food pantry in La Grange for nearly 10 years, since she and her husband separated. She works part-time in childcare and owns her home.

She had always hoped her savings would be enough to help her make ends meet when she got older, but now she isn’t sure - her mortgage and monthly payments are quickly depleting her emergency funds.

“The pantry really helps stretch my food stamp dollars,” she said.

Dorothy receives $189 per month in SNAP benefits. But she still can’t afford produce, so she receives it at the food pantry.

“I get all kinds of fresh vegetables at the pantry,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise.”

In addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, Dorothy receives meat, bread and shelf-stable food at the pantry.

“It’s hugely beneficial to me,” she said.

Friday, March 7, 2014

52 Stories, 52 Weeks: Raising our voice

Ulondia Johnson tells her story to Rep. Robin Kelly's staff as Food Depository executive director and CEO Kate Maehr looks on.
Ulondia Johnson has struggled with hunger practically her entire life. Living in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, she has had trouble finding jobs and making enough to support her three children.

“I would come home crying because we didn’t have enough to eat,” she said.

She knew she had to break her cycle of poverty, so she enrolled in a six-month certificate program at a local college that trained her to teach art. She’s now working at the Golden Gate Day Care Center, a Greater Chicago Food Depository member agency near Altgeld Gardens.

“You just have to have the right mindset and good things will come to you,” she said.

But, Ulondia wasn’t content just defeating her own hunger. She wanted to make a difference for her neighbors in need. She applied, and was accepted for, a scholarship to join the Food Depository at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference this past week in Washington, D.C.

“I have known hunger in my life and so have my children,” she said. “I want to tell lawmakers that story.”

And she did. On Tuesday, Food Depository advocates visited with 11 lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In a meeting with Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly’s staff, Ulondia told her story, while holding back tears.

“I have experienced hunger,” she said. “It’s hard when you don’t have enough to eat.”

After the meeting, Ulondia received plenty of hugs from the other advocates. As she walked away from Rep. Kelly’s office, she knew she had made a difference.

“My voice was heard today,” she said.

For more on the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, read the live blog or check out our Why I Advocate series.