Anthony Bellmar, of Oak Park, packs up silverware on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, at The Happy Apple in Oak Park's Arts District on Harrison Street. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Rush Oak Park Hospital has transformed its former Emergency Department into a 24/7 warming center at 610 S. Maple Ave.  A collaboration between a trio of non-profits and a bevy of local restaurants is bringing breakfast and dinner to guests seeking shelter from the cold.

“Housing Forward, the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, and the Village of Oak Park have had a relationship for many years. Rush Oak Park and West Suburban Hospital were easy additions to our existing collaboration,” said Lynda Schueler, executive director of Housing Forward. “Rush’s warming center is open 24/7 so adding a meal program there made sense to us. We expect the meal program to expand organically, and we are open to including West Sub if they see a need.”

John Harris, coordinator of the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, reached out to Ravi Parakkat, a village trustee and Takeout 25 founder, to ask if the organization would have an interest in coordinating meals for the center. Parakkat was enthused at the prospect of using the non-profit to assist with the program.

“We reached out to Takeout 25 community members to back the cause and they generously donated $8,500 to keep the meal program cost neutral for restaurants providing meals,” said Parakkat. “Restaurant owners were quick to sign up to help. We actually had more takers than we needed and have a few restaurants on standby.”

Takeout 25’s trial program is expected to run for six weeks providing breakfast and dinner Monday through Thursday for an average of 12 guests. Delivery First, a local delivery company, has stepped up to transport the meals at no cost and the community donations fully cover the costs for six weeks of meals sourced through Takeout 25 based on an allotment of $75 per day for breakfast and $150 per day for dinner. Housing Forward separately acquired a grant to provide meals between Friday and Sunday and intend to rely on existing restaurant partnerships to facilitate the weekend program.  The warming center at Rush is open when temperatures dip below freezing and has a maximum capacity of 15 people with social distancing protocols in place.

The program launched last week with Joana Fischer of Twisted Cookie, 7401 Madison St., Forest Park, providing apple pie cookies for the inaugural breakfast and Josh Darr of local start-up Darr-B-Q serving a hearty meal of smoked brisket and almond pear cobbler for the kick-off dinner. Fischer said she jumped on board because she is inspired by Parakkat’s ongoing efforts to support local restaurants and Darr said participating felt like “the next right thing to do.”

Oak Park’s Poke Burrito, Eastgate Café and Happy Apple Pie Shop also provided meals during the first week of the program.

“The food community is so generous,” said Michelle Mascaro, owner of Happy Apple, 226 Harrison St. “Everybody is worthy of a meal. Good food, made with love, makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

Mascaro, who provided warm spinach quiche and fresh oranges for breakfast last week, notes that supporting the warming center is personal to her. She has a former employee who deals with complex mental health issues and grapples with homelessness. He is often a guest at Rush’s warming center. 

“This is the first time we’ve done anything like this,” said Schueler. “People using the center have been extremely grateful for the meals.”

In the coming weeks the Oak Park based program is scheduled to receive support from Two Sisters Restaurant and Catering located in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. 

“Food should not only be for people who can afford it,” said Veah Larde, chef owner of Two Sisters, 4800 W. Chicago Ave. “Why not help someone? Most people are a moment away from needing help— needing help to pay a bill, find some heat or get a meal.”

In 2020, the pandemic forced Housing Forward to close the 24-hour overnight shelter it had operated for 29 years in the community. The pause in the shelter program created a “hole of need” according to Harris and forced the organizations to develop a “two-pronged approach” to fill the service gap and combat issues of homelessness during the winter.

Schueler and Harris credit, Michael Montino, the village government’s emergency preparedness coordinator, and fresh leadership at both Rush and West Sub, for helping to clarify ways they could meet the needs of people who do not have access to heat. In addition to promoting the five warming centers located inside Oak Park’s libraries and hospitals, they have developed a program with support from faith community leaders that triggers the opening of emergency overnight shelters in churches in the event of an extended winter weather event.

“The partnership with Ravi, Takeout 25 and the local restaurant community drove up awareness about our local warming centers,” said Harris. “Community collaboration is necessary if you are going to change the world.”

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