Rae Kalin makes a mean poached salmon. Basil pesto pasta on the side, zucchini and tomato sautéed with garlic, tossed salad, buttered rolls, and peach pie a la mode for dessert.
Even better, she has no problem whipping up the meal for 60 people or more.
Kalin is a volunteer for West Suburban PADS, a network of homeless shelters in Oak Park, Forest Park, and near western suburbs. Her unofficial duty is to man the kitchen at dinner. The poached salmon is an example of one of her featured meals.
"I've been a cook for PADS for about five years, maybe longer," she said. "My belief is to give my guests — and that's what they are — any dinner I would eat for myself at home."
The guests she refers to are the local homeless, those struggling to find a warm refuge during the coldest months of the year. The PADS emergency shelter program operates mid-September through mid-May, when the cold arrives and the streets of Chicago's suburbs become unbearable as night settles in.
"During the regular season, we have 40 to 70 people every night," said Nancy Ford, director of development and communication for PADS. In order to serve numbers that high, the program relies on more than 1,000 volunteers.
Last Wednesday night, several hundred of those dedicated volunteers gathered at the Nineteenth Century Club for the annual volunteer appreciation event to enjoy dinner and drinks, donated by some two dozen area restaurants and retailers.
"It's been done for a number of years, but it hasn't been done on this scale," said Sally Prescott, one of the event organizers and a 19-year veteran volunteer. Before this year, the parties were thrown in the basement of a shelter church.
"I think they're really excited about it," said shelter manager Emily Aker, who also helped coordinate the event. Aker said she was thrilled to work with a fellow nonprofit — the Nineteenth Century Club — to hold the festive event. "It's just incredible. [PADS is] a grassroots organization for sure, and this event is reflective of that as well," she said.
"After I'd done it for a while, I thought, why haven't I done this sooner?" said Nancy Smiley, a volunteer for roughly five years. Smiley also prepares food and basks in the grateful responses she reads in the faces of shelter visitors. "You're doing it for somebody else and it just gives you this great feeling," she said.
"You think, these guys are down on their luck, and they have reason to be bitter and angry," said David Radford, a volunteer for more than a decade. But he finds them to be gracious and appreciative.
"Initially it was a way for me to get out of the house and do some service without my children and actually speak to other adults," said Prescott, who has been a volunteer since the emergency shelter program began in 1992. "Then subsequently it was a great way to introduce my children to volunteering spirit and how important volunteering is and giving back to our community."
Laura Kliewer, president of the PADS board of directors, began as a volunteer with her church, waking up for the third shift at the break of day. She loved it so much that she decided to join the board to become more involved. She said the event was a great way to give volunteers the recognition they deserve for devoting hundreds of thousands of hours to service each year.
"This has been a dream of mine for a long time, to do something like this," said Prescott. "The volunteers here [are] so awesome in their giving spirit."