Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry launches CAN-DO Community Challenge

Local schools enlisted to help organization raise $100,000

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

For 17 years, the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry counted on the $100,000 and food goods it collected annually during the Feinstein Foundation's $1 million challenge grant program each spring.

So, Michele Zurakowski, the agency's executive director, was stunned when this year that Rhode Island-based group abruptly pulled the plug on its national fundraising effort.

Besides its annual appeal, this challenge grant program is a critical contributor to the agency's coffers, so she and her staff quickly regrouped.

"We decided to call up a few of our donors to have a conversation about it, and four major philanthropists, three from Oak Park and one from River Forest, said, 'Look, if you can raise $100,000 in cash and food goods by the end of April, we will pool our money and collectively give a $25,000 challenge grant,'" Zurakowski said.

Now, with the buy-in of a small group of anonymous philanthropists, kicking off this weekend will be its hyper-local effort, the "CAN DO Community Challenge." It's a mostly school-based fundraising initiative that will officially launch at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, with a benefit concert featuring Nikki Hill at FitzGerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. 

Tickets and more information are available by linking to www.oprffoodpantry.org/events.

Besides reaching out to encourage school children and their families to help raise the dollars and food resources needed to address hunger issues, Zurakowski says her aim is to also heighten awareness about local food insecurity by encouraging other organizations, congregations and individuals to conduct spring food drives, as well.

Dollar donations, as well as in-kind donations of food — high in protein or grains — are needed, she says.

"With every dollar we get, we are able to leverage that into the ability of being able to buy more food from our local food bank," she says, adding that in 2014, in the 12 ZIP codes her agency services, over 45,000 individuals received over 720,000 pounds of food assistance.

The organization has reached out to every public and private school in Oak Park and River Forest, and she hopes every school will step up to the fundraising challenge.

In addition to helping a good cause, she says, the schools will also be competing for the chance to house "a trophy, which will be like the 'Stanley Cup of Giving,'" she said.

The trophy will be given to the school whose dollar and food donations score the most points. It may be a traveling trophy in years to come.

"The competition will be around the schools, because they have really gotten into the fundraising challenge event in the past," she says.

 "For these kids, we look at this as one of the building blocks for local philanthropy," Zurakowski says.  "And us being able to do this at the last minute is a testament of the involvement of our community in its social impact organizations.  Honestly, I made four phone calls, and four people just stepped up to do this."

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