Joe Cannella’s life was forever changed when he suffered a gruesome leg injury in a car accident on May 4, 1998.
After nine years of surgery, his right leg had to be partially amputated, he said. Through all of that, he persisted because of his two sons, Cannella said. And he continues to get by with the help of his mother, Virginia Cannella, a 72-year-old retired school teacher who has her own health challenges.
He’ll tell you this with a steady gaze and no trace of hesitation: His family is why he’s still here.
On a recent sweltering summer evening, Joe and Virginia turned to the food pantry at the Christian Life Center in Berwyn, which serves about 320 households each month. The Cannellas were among a diverse crowd of 80 or so people who showed up that night in need of sustenance and perhaps an encouraging word.
Joe and Virginia loaded up on bread, canned goods, fresh produce and meat, then helped one another up the stairs and out to the car.
“The people here are very considerate. The food is great,” said Joe Cannella, 49. “It’s a godsend for people who need it.”
At Christian Life Center, one of the partner agencies in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s network in Cook County, the mission is about more than just food. It’s about offering compassion to anyone who walks in the door, said Pam Powell, who’s helped run the pantry for more than 13 years.
Despite her long tenure at the pantry, Powell doesn’t take her role for granted.
“I don’t want to become complacent,” said Powell, 62, a retired sleep technician. “It’s something that should come from your heart. My faith keeps me from getting burnt out.”
Since she started volunteering at the Berwyn pantry, Powell said she’s seen an “absolute increase” in need in the community.
And more recently, since the Great Recession, Powell’s noticed more working professionals facing hunger in Berwyn, a western Chicago suburb with a predominately Latino population.
About 30 percent of Berwyn’s residents live below 185 percent of the federal poverty line – a threshold used to determine eligibility for some social services, according to Census data tracked by the Food Depository. That figure has increased in recent years.
Robyn Rinaldi, 40, has struggled on and off with homelessness for years, while surviving a litany of health problems including cancer and fibromyalgia, she said. She lives mostly on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Social Security disability benefits.
Just recently, Rinaldi and her 8-year-old son Nicholas moved into a new apartment. She’s grateful for the Christian Life Center’s help along the way.
“It fed me when I didn’t have any means to survive,” Rinaldi said. “This helped me to get through and get by.”
Simon Estrada, 48, works a part-time job in the city, helping to maintain an apartment building. He receives food from Christian Life Center and also volunteers at the pantry to show his gratitude.
He doesn’t want to need the help, but he’s grateful that it’s there.
“I eat week by week and it’s a comfort that this is here,” Estrada said.
First-time pantry guests: "You can have a job and still struggle"
There were some first-time guests at the recent food distribution at Christian Life Center.
Alexus Watkins, a 21-year-old mother of two young children, teared up when talking about her hopes for her kids to have a better life. She grew up in Cabrini-Green, which was one of Chicago’s most troubled housing developments. As a child, she also experienced homelessness with her mother at times.
Now, she’s working a telemarketing job while living with her mother. She dreams of saving enough money to send her kids to college.
“Thank God I came to this place tonight or my kids would have been hungry,” she said.
Likewise, Damarrius Meadows, 34, stopped by the pantry for the first time after noticing it when walking by. A Tennessee native, Meadows recently moved to Illinois for a factory job, but his hours have dwindled as production at the plant has slowed down, he said.
As a result, he and his girlfriend are on a “very tight budget,” he said.
“You can have a job and still struggle,” he said. “I’m glad it’s here with open arms. At the time, I really needed it.”
Like many food pantries in the Food Depository’s network, Christian Life Center has geographical boundaries. But no one is ever turned away, Powell said. If someone lives outside the boundaries, they’ll receive food and a referral to a pantry closer to where they live.
“We want them to feel at home,” Powell said.
Joe Cannella’s hardships are ongoing. After earning a paycheck in recent years as a pizza delivery driver, he can no longer work because of back pain. He’ll need back surgery soon, he said. He’s also battled depression.
He’s not giving up.
“I’ve learned to live with it,” Joe said of his numerous challenges. “I don’t let nothing stop me.”