Rebranding, rethinking hunger

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

It is something to see when an essential, local nonprofit embraces the fullness of its mission, recognizing that its goals at founding, while admirable, were inadequate to the complexity and the dismaying breadth of their concern.

We're watching that happen this week as the 40-plus-year-old Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry rebrands itself as Beyond Hunger. Rebranding is just a marketing effort — unless an entity has truly figured out and started working on the underlying causes at the root of their good work.

The Food Pantry has been about that evolution for some years under the leadership of Michele Zurakowski, along with the board of directors and a raft of volunteers. What started in the basement of a Lake Street church in the late 1970s has grown into an ambitious nonprofit, focused on listening to its diverse base of clients and providing far more food than government cheese and canned goods. 

The nonprofit now actively serves 13 Zip codes stretching from the West Side through to Proviso Township and a bit north as well. It has pioneered — with a grant from the Community Foundation's Big Idea award — the Surplus Project, which gathers meals from the cafeterias of local schools and hospitals and repackages and rapidly delivers them to clients. Last year that added up to 18,000 meals saved from the landfill. There is also a determined collaboration with local food stores, which salvages fresh food on the cusp and puts it to good use. Imagine the logistics involved in a time-sensitive mission like this. Much more complex than handing out cans of DelMonte peas.  

Again this summer the newly christened Beyond Hunger is feeding children who during the school year benefit from free and reduced-cost meals at school. 

"What began as a food pantry in a church basement is evolving into a comprehensive collaboration of programs, services, and resources to promote food security," says Zurakowski.

We've seen this before and it is always an inspiration. PADS launched in Oak Park decades back as a cold-month, overnight shelter for the homeless. It was housed in and served by generous local churches in Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest. About the finest work a volunteer and a church could do. But then came the gradual realization that getting people out of the cold and serving them two meals was not solving the problem of why these individuals and families were in this harsh predicament.

And so PADS gradually added a remarkable range of housing programs and resources intended to get people back into more stable housing, train them for work opportunities, connect them to social services for addiction and mental health challenges. There are also programs focused on keeping people who are on the brink of homelessness in more secure housing.

Several years back, reflecting the breadth of their services and their growing geographic coverage, PADS rebranded as Housing Forward.

How about the Infant Welfare Society's Children's Clinic? This is a 103-year-old Oak Park nonprofit that has long offered medical and dental care for children left outside the circle of insurance-supported health care. In recent years the Children's Clinic has added a focus on literacy and, critically, now actively screens young patients for mental health indicators.

The sponsoring Infant Welfare Society recently announced plans to purchase its own building for the first time in its century of service and is currently raising funds for the remaking of a small office building on Madison at Humphrey.

There are other examples of local nonprofits growing into the fullness of their missions. Hephzibah Children's Association. Thrive. New Moms. Seven Generations Ahead. Opportunity Knocks. NAMI. Sarah's Inn. And that's just me getting started.

It is easy to take for granted the critical and inspired work of Oak Park and River Forest's social service agencies. But it's where so many of our challenges, and the challenges of our neighbors, are being assertively, creatively tackled.

Email: Twitter: @OPEditor

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Paul Clark  

Posted: June 27th, 2019 3:14 PM

Thanks for highlighting the work of the (rebranded) food pantry and all of the other organizations mentioned in the article. Area residents expend a lot of negative energy in the comment columns of the Journal directed at local institutions (mainly the schools and government). It's important for all of us to recognize the great work of organizations like Beyond Hunger and Housing Forward and Infant Welfare and many others that have professional staffs that knit together public and private financial and other resources and train and organize hundreds of volunteers, to deliver key services to our community members. I've worked as a volunteer with some of the groups mentioned here and am impressed with the ongoing recognition by boards and staff that an organization's mission can be expanded in imaginative ways -- and everyone benefits.

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