The New Normal

Evanston pantry delivers joy amid winter's grip

The New Normal series chronicles Cook County’s pantries as they face near-record levels of demand two years after the start of the economic downturn.

"I wouldn't want to have to go out on a day like this."

But Susan Gottlieb is out on a day like this. If she and the other volunteers weren't a lot of people would go hungry.

On this frigid January day the bright sun is a broken promise of warmth. The Hillside Food Pantry volunteers have an hour or so to set up the sign-in station, fill bags with groceries and arrange cars in the parking lot to form a drive-through area for patrons to pick up their food.

A ministry of Hillside Free Methodist Church, 2727 Crawford Ave., Evanston, the pantry proper is in the church's side building at the far end of the church parking lot. The pantry has just expanded the tiny building, in which every movement had been a close encounter between volunteers.

Approximately 500 families a week receive food, says Gottlieb, who is coordinator of 90 volunteers. The pantry distributes food twice a week, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. But there always are volunteers doing something at the pantry seven days a week, she says.

There are no income or residency requirements to receive food. "All you have to be is in need," says Rev. Maiya Lueptow, the pantry's director and church's associate pastor.

Volunteering is a joy for Maria Mamala. "I've been volunteering about two months," she says. "Here, you’re part of seeing that people aren't going to bed hungry. What I hadn't thought about, and what they are so wonderful at here, is maintaining the dignity of the people who come here for help."

As the patrons shiver in from the cold, Rev. Lueptow and the volunteers greet many by name. Some get and give hugs. Everyone receives a smile and a welcome.

"How are you doing?"

"Trying to hang in there."

First-timers are greeted with, "Welcome to the pantry. Nice to meet you."

"You are a blessing to us," Rev. Lueptow tells them.

An elderly patron has just spent the morning chopping ice from his and his neighbors' sidewalks. "But it was time to come here," he says. "I can finish chopping ice later. I've been retired for 15 years, ran my own business. How old do you think I am? Eighty next month. You got to keep active. But, you know, I think I've chopped enough ice. I'm going to get my groceries and take it easy for the rest of the day."

When the food pantry began in 2007 it served 20 families a month, Rev. Lueptow says. Now it serves 2,300 families a month.

"A lot of people who come here are unemployed," she says. "But a significant number are employed but can't make ends meet. If the food we provide saves someone $200 a month, well, that means they can pay their rent."

Rev. Lueptow calls pantry volunteers "a community of people helping people." Eighty percent of the volunteers come from outside the church. There are adults, students, people of all faiths. They hear about the pantry, mostly through word of mouth, and they come to help.

Rhona Sours has volunteered for a year. "My mother-in-law was a volunteer," she says. "Originally, I started here to honor her memory. But I found I really enjoyed working here."

Patrons also volunteer, Rev. Lueptow says. "They may feel, 'I can't get a job, but I can do something worthwhile.' It’s so humbling for me the way people find to show their love and appreciation. There's not an 'us' and 'them' mentality. We're together. We don't feel this is our food. The food is something we've been given to show God's love."

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