Lillian Hennings is grateful that she’s been able to witness what has come of the food pantry she helped start nearly 40 years ago.
“That is the greatest part of my life; to be able to live long enough to see this pantry like it is today,” said Hennings, 86.
After running the Maple Morgan Park food pantry for more than 30 years, Hennings is now watching with pride as her daughter leads it forward. The Far South Side pantry – one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s partner agencies – is now on the brink of significant expansion under executive director Karen Overstreet, who hopes to carry on her mother’s legacy while modernizing the pantry to meet the diverse needs in the neighborhood.
“This is my gift back to humanity,” Overstreet said. “Since I’m here and I’ve innovated and brought it to this point, I’m in it now. So I’ve got to see it [through] until the end.”
Thirty-eight years ago, before the pantry had even become a pantry, the outreach began with a single barrel filled with donated food of a church in Maple Park. That effort was in response to layoffs at a nearby production plant for Libby’s, a canned food company.
“At that time, a lot of factories had closed down, and so they were happy to get the food,” Hennings recalled.
Hennings assisted with those early food assistance efforts that began in 1981 and were initiated by her cousin. A few years later, she became the longtime executive director of the Maple Morgan Park food pantry, which is located in the bottom floor of the Morgan Park United Methodist Church.
Though Hennings is retired from her official duties, she still volunteers and is a revered figure among the team. During a recent distribution, she kept herself busy separating bags for its Thanksgiving giveaway. Not far from her, the pantry’s tight-knit group of volunteers hustled to organize canned goods out of their boxes and onto shelves.
Overstreet acknowledged she has big shoes to fill. Her role at the pantry was an unexpected career change after previously owning coin laundry businesses. But continuing – and expanding – her mother’s work is one of the reasons she’s so dedicated.
And she’s leading the pantry through some major changes.
Earlier this year, the pantry switched from handing out pre-packed bags to allowing guests to fill their own carts with items of their choice. Now, they are in the early planning and fundraising stages of an expansion that would double its size and transform it into a community service center.
Plans meant to ‘answer the needs of the community’
Overstreet described her vision as she walked through a large church storage room, which the pantry plans to renovate and use as an intake area. She also plans to use the extra room to help connect clients to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and utility bill assistance, as well as offer mental health support. She also hopes to add a bathroom where visitors experiencing homelessness could take a warm shower.
Overstreet also wants to start a nutrition program with classes on how to prepare healthy foods. As the pantry has increased its distribution of fresh produce, she said there’s been more questions about how to use those items.
Beyond programming, Overstreet also explained that she wants to create more storage space to increase the volume of fresh food the pantry can store and distribute.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” she said.
Today, the pantry serves about 1,200 households a month, according to Overstreet, adding that its visitors represent a diverse range of ages, nationalities and life situations.
When deciding to change to the choice system earlier this year, Overstreet said, she wanted to help address guests’ needs while also providing a positive experience.
“We wanted them to come and have a shopping experience just like in a store,” she said.
The Maple Morgan Park pantry can now give away more perishable goods, like milk and eggs.
Visitor Elizabeth Rhea, who’s turned to the pantry over the last four years, said she enjoys now being able to choose her own groceries. As she went through the distribution, she picked up her selections of staple items like kidney beans, canned vegetables, chicken noodle soup and meat.
Rhea, 61, lives in Morgan Park with her husband and stepson. She works as a part-time housekeeper and her husband does maintenance work for apartment buildings. But the pantry provides their household with additional support.
“It helps out the community more than anything,” Rhea said. “Because a lot of stuff (at the store) is so expensive. So I like it, because it helps the people.”
The new services will “answer the needs of the community,” said Arlene Hambrick, a volunteer and retired college professor from Purdue University Northwest in Hammond.
“We know the people…we talk to them, so we get to know who these folks are and what their needs are,” said Hambrick, 74. “We follow them year after year after year. It’s not just that we’re trying to help them; we know exactly what kind of help they need.”
Pantry helps take the stress off
As retirees, James and Emma Scott live on a limited income, which is why they’ve used the food pantry for the last few years. The couple, both in their mid-70s, has been married for 55 years.
Before retiring, James worked as an electrician and Emma at a local bank.
“It gives us the opportunity to not stress (and) pay other bills,” Emma said about the access to food. “When you can eat reasonably, it helps a lot.”
The pantry also provides support beyond food, said Vincent Owens. Owens, a longtime volunteer, initially started visiting Maple Morgan Park for the food assistance before deciding to give back. Taking a brief break from helping guests bring groceries out to their cars, Owens explained that regularly helping with the distributions – and the loving, supportive relationships he’s formed there – keeps him in a positive environment and away from trouble.
“If I wouldn’t have done this, I don’t know where I would be,” said Owens, 56. He echoed a sentiment that several of his fellow volunteers shared: The team is like a family.
For Hennings, who still comes and helps when she can, what keeps her coming back is simple: feeding people is a part of her life.
“The Lord said feed the hungry,” she said, “and I just feel like that’s part of my mission.”