Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry stays open despite blizzard

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

Surely no one would think there's anything all that special about a plate of lasagna.

Cheese, spaghetti sauce, pasta, spices, and whatever personal touches from grandma's cookbook, but nothing worth writing the Iron Chef or Wednesday Journal's own foodie columnist Frank Chlumsky about.

On Wednesday evening, as buckets of snow fell upon the Chicago area – 18-inches in Oak Park -- Michele Zurakowski and her staff dined on the Italian dish. It was brought in that evening by their co-worker at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry—a well-deserved meal for a smaller-than-usual staff who chose to work Wednesday during one of the worst blizzards of record in the city.

The Tuesday evening before—as the storm began to pick up steam—Zurakowski, the pantry's director of operations, and her staff was faced with a tough decision: open the pantry up on its normal, first Wednesday evening of the month or shut it down. They decided to go ahead and open at 7 p.m., and serve whoever showed up.

Fifteen families, about 40 people, both new and regular clients, did show up to the basement of First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., the pantry's headquarters. Two people drove all the way from Melrose Park.

Zurakowski, director of the social service agency since 2008, was there, along with two of her staff, a member of the pantry's board, and five volunteers. Of the 25 to 30 regular volunteers and staff, they were the ones who were able to make it there Wednesday.

"It was Tuesday and we were having a staff meeting and deciding on what we should do," Zurakowski said. "We would work to stay open if we could."

One factor was the pantry's parking lot and if it would be cleared by the village by 7 p.m. Wednesday. It was.

Another factor, and the most pressing one in whether or not to open, was the clients themselves. A few did call early Wednesday to see if the pantry would be open, but most usually just come by Zurakowski said—also, the pantry doesn't really have a way to contact clients.

One of the 15 people who showed left several messages, but never reached anyone.

"He told me, 'I left two messages, but I thought I'd come and chance it because I really needed the food," she said of the man who, luckily, was in walking distance of the pantry.

"There's no easy way to reach clients," she added. "If someone was hungry enough to come out on Wednesday, in all that snow, then we needed to be there to feed them."

The pantry, Zurakowski said, would also be open on Saturday, its regular weekend day. The pantry also opens regularly during the day every Wednesday following the first of the month. Normally, about 150 families come that first Wednesday evening.

But on this particular stormy day, there were no lines, no numbers for people to take. The mood was "peaceful," Zurakowski said.

After staff wrapped up serving clients at 8:30 that evening, they received a welcome surprise. Pantry Manager Paula Berg brought staff homemade lasagna for a hard evening's work.

"Usually we're feeding clients but this time we were fed—that was nice of her," Zurakowski said.

Contact:
Email: tdean@wjinc.com

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