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Chicago area couple launches $1 million challenge for Food Depository

A local couple has made a unique and inspiring challenge: They will donate $1 million to the Greater Chicago Food Depository if the Food Depository can raise another $1 million.

George and Cindy Rusu, who lived in Chicago for many years and have strong ties to the city, are hoping to make a difference locally during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated food insecurity across the country. The challenge is intended to spur donations to help meet the rising need for emergency food assistance.

“We’re just two normal people who realize that others need help,” said George Rusu, co-founder and chairman/CEO of Captive Resources, a Chicago-area insurance operation. “In Chicago, we’re one of the greatest cities on the planet. There are a lot of people in Chicago like us who live fortunate lives. I’m hoping we can be just a modest example of what other people could do in a time that’s unprecedented.”

George and Cindy Rusu pose for a photo at a holiday party.

George and Cindy Rusu will donate $1 million if the Food Depository can raise another $1 million.

Never before in its 41-year history has the Food Depository seen such a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking food assistance. In recent weeks, the Food Depository’s network of food pantries and similar programs is serving an average of 120 percent more people in need when compared to January figures. Black and Latino communities that have long suffered racial inequity have been hit the hardest by the combination of COVID-19 and food insecurity.

The Rusus had a realization upon seeing some of the news reports of long lines at food pantries.

“We looked at the cars in the lines,” he said. “There were a lot of nice cars. I’m sure those people never expected to be in those lines.”

Young men volunteering in Auburn Gresham carry boxes of fresh produce, meat and nonperishable food to a car.

Young men volunteering in Auburn Gresham carry boxes of fresh produce, meat and nonperishable food to a car.

Indeed, many families are experiencing food insecurity for the first time in their lives. Though there are some signs of economic recovery, the unemployment rate in Chicago still far exceeds the state and national unemployment rates. The economic impact of the pandemic is expected to be prolonged, experts say, further underscoring the need for community support.

Through their family foundation, George and Cindy Rusu typically focus their philanthropy on providing educational opportunities for low-income youth. After seeing some of the news coverage early in the pandemic, the Rusus decided to shift their giving to covering basic necessities like food.

“Our thought process is it’s really hard for kids to even think about going to college or a trade school, getting scholarships, getting a job, if they’re hungry,” Rusu said. “If you’re hungry and you don’t have food, you’re not going to focus on any of that stuff.”

George Rusu grew up on Chicago’s North Side and studied engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bridgeport before launching a successful business career in the insurance industry. His company, Captive Resources, employs nearly 300 people and was rated last year as one of the Chicago Tribune’s Top Workplaces. The Rusus have three daughters and five granddaughters.

In other words, Rusu said, they’ve been fortunate.

Now they’re hoping to help others who are struggling to make ends meet – while inspiring some others to help, too. The money raised in the Rusu challenge will directly bolster the Food Depository’s efforts to meet the rising need during the pandemic.

“Our philosophy is you want to figure out that balance of what you’re really going to need financially and what you’re not going to need,” Rusu said. “And if you’re not going to need it, why don’t you use it to help out others and make sure they get an opportunity?”

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