Dedicated volunteers pin their hopes on the Nourishing Hope Lakeview food pantry

By Kala Hunter
Medill report

Nourishing Hope is a food pantry in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that serves between 130-200 households a day. This 53-year-old non-profit organization has 50 full-time staff and thousands of continuously working volunteers. Even as the pandemic subsides, more and more people in Chicago are using the free meals the nonprofit is offering. The nonprofit has seen its food programs increase by 40% this year. During that time, volunteer Louie Herrera logged 6,000 hours. Herrera serves himself by serving his community as he himself has struggled with food stability. Volunteering at Nourishing Hope allows her to give back, stay aware and inspire others to serve.


INTRO: Nourishing Hope is a food pantry in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The nonprofit has seen its food programs increase by 40% this year. During that time, one volunteer logged 6,000 hours. Medill Reports’ Kala Hunter has the story.

HUNTER: Nourishing Hope has colorful panels hanging from the top depicting produce sections, eggs, dry goods, and dairy products. It is bright and inviting. Volunteers rushed to pack food 30 minutes before doors opened.

Louie Herrera is always greeted with a warm welcome by the other volunteers every time she enters a room.

Volunteer: Where’s Louie?

Another volunteer: Louis!

HUNTER: A few minutes before 11 a.m., when Nourishing Hope opened, Herrera was busy at work, answering the phone at the reception desk.

HERRERA: Friday will be here from 11 to 3 and Saturday 11 to 3. So one of those dates.

HUNTER: Herrera is 56 years old. He is light-hearted, helpful and has an authentic, friendly presence. He has the ability to make anyone feel comfortable immediately

HERRERA: No, honey. You may have to stand in line for a second or two, or we’ll get you in and then you’ll be taken care of. OKAY? Allright darling. See you.

HUNTER: Herrera likes to control the music. Today is Motown.

After working as a brass mill operator for 29 years in Cicero, he switched careers and went to school for chemical dependency counseling, worked with Lutheran Social, and realized something was wrong. He took unpaid leave and ended up homeless because of what he now knows was his bipolar disorder and anxiety.

HERRERA: I love being funny, and I love being welcoming. I love it. Why? Because I can interact, you know, interact. Even if “please take off your mask”. Maybe this person is having a hard time and this person, you know what I mean, they don’t want to listen or they don’t because they’re not, they’re human.

HUNTER: Herrera isn’t afraid to tell members who come to Nourishing Hope to lift their masks or move forward.

[Herrera tells someone to slow down.]

HERRERA: What I do is very unconditional, I don’t want anything. And I got 200 lines, $42 in the bank, belly full of food, hot bed, squat pad, what do I need? You know, what do I need? But my career, I think, if you want to call it a calling, is doing ministry work.

HUNTER: The same day Herrera was notified that his services would no longer be needed, he saw Nourishing Hope on his way home and immediately signed up to volunteer. Volunteering is her way of staying sober.

HERRERA: I know and I know what it’s like to have to eat something maybe it fell on the floor, maybe seen it in a dive trash can, whatever that is, I know how that feels.

HUNTER: Louie is here six days a week, and Nourishing Hope’s management had to insist he take his time.

Angela Cimarusti is the manager of the pantry program at Nourishing Hope. He joined in 2019, around the same time as Herrera.

CIMARUSTI: He often comes here. We tried to push him to make sure he had some time outside of the pantry, but he was very committed. He was also really helpful with like, training our new volunteers. He jokes to himself that he’s a bit of a control freak, sometimes we have to remind him to be a little flexible.

HERRERA: I admit it. I’m a control freak. I want things my way. You know, man, 32 years in recovery. I still haven’t learned it.

HUNTER: Now it’s time to open up. Herrera proudly took one last sip from his nicotine vape pen before he started his voluntary shift.

HERERA: Oh yeah. It’s like Black Friday in, uh, you know the sale date?

[People scurrying and shuffling carts. People chatting amongst themselves while they wait for food.]

HUNTER: People of all ages and races are lining up for various kinds of food. They were young, old, spoke Spanish, Polish, Ukrainian and English while they waited.

Nourishing Hope serves between 130-200 households per day, and harder-working volunteers, like Herrera, are the cogs that keep things turning.

Like Cimarusti, Marketing Director of Nourishing Hope, Greg Trotter found Herrera to be kind, warm and friendly.

TROTTER: I remember one day, maybe a year or so ago, where I was downstairs and, you know, he answered the phone and, like hearing him on the phone, was like, like, “No, no, no no no no. No, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about it. No, just come in. We’ll take care of you. Just come in, you know, we will, we’ll look after you as best we can. And it’s like Louie, you know, like he just wants to bring people in and take care of them.

HUNTER: This year Nourishing Hope is aiming for 6,000 volunteers when the fiscal year ends on March 30thth, which Trotter believes they will hit. He says the staff at Nourishing Hope are just some of the people who make up the nonprofit.

TROTTER: We only have about 50 staff, so how does that add to our effort, like, it’s not an exaggeration to say like, we couldn’t do this job without our volunteers.

HUNTER: Volunteering helps Herrera get out of his head and connect with other people who need help and a little hope.

HERRERA: An ounce of energy or an ounce of sweat that I put out here puts a pound of food on somebody’s table

I can make them happy. I can give them hope. You know, I can give them hope that there’s a better tomorrow because of the fact that today you got food.

HUNTER: If you decide to stop by Nourishing Hope. You can count on seeing Herrera.

At Lakeview, I’m Black Hunter for Medill Reports.

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