Rita Pineda knows what it’s like to need a little help.
When she was a single mother of two young children, Pineda received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, to help feed her family. She would only need the assistance for about six months, eventually going on to become a Chicago Public Schools teacher for more than 24 years – a calling that’s still deeply ingrained in her sense of self.
Now retired at 62, Pineda has continued to find ways to help others through regularly volunteering at the Food Depository during the pandemic.
“We are the richest nation in the world and no one should go hungry, particularly children,” Pineda said. “And that’s why I do it.”
On a recent Friday morning, Pineda helped pack emergency boxes of food in the Food Depository warehouse, where she has logged nearly 100 hours of service in the past year. She’s also begun volunteering at the Food Depository’s Fresh Truck distributions, which delivers fresh produce to health clinics in low-income neighborhoods. Volunteers like Pineda have helped the Food Depository meet the rising need for food assistance during the ongoing crisis.
“To be able to come here, I leave feeling so good, knowing that someone, somewhere down the line is going to be helped,” Pineda said.
As a working single mother, Pineda needed seven years to earn her bachelor’s degree but she never gave up. And then, on June 3, 2000, she graduated cum laude from Columbia College with Master of Art degree in multicultural education.
That same year, her daughter earned her bachelor’s degree and her son earned his high school diploma.
Pineda still beams at the memory of that auspicious year.
“I wanted to be the best mom I could be,” she said.
When she taught fifth grade for more than two decades at Stevenson Elementary School on the Southwest Side, a school with more than 86 percent low-income students, she saw the need for food assistance every day in her classroom. Some of her students were homeless; many others were food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to nutritious food for a healthy lifestyle.
“For many of them, I was their safe space,” Pineda said.
Upon retirement two years ago, Pineda formed a plan to lead a full and active life – a plan that would nourish her own health while also continuing to help others.
Volunteering is one of her “retirement buckets,” along with travel, health and wellness, and learning new things. A native of the Southwest Side, she intends to become a certified yoga teacher for children. (During the pandemic, Pineda has also taken up archery as a hobby.)
Pineda doesn’t keep track of her steps, but suffice to say, she would have no problem hitting the 10,000 mark each day. She doesn’t care for sitting. She believes it’s important to keep moving.
And as someone who once needed help, she knows how food assistance can help a person achieve their personal goals in life.
“The big thing is, no one should go to bed hungry,” Pineda said. “There’s just no reason for it.”
The Food Depository is in constant need of volunteers to support our mission of ending hunger. Please learn more and register to volunteer today.