By Kala Hunter
Nourishing Hope is a food pantry in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that serves between 130-200 households a day. The 53-year-old nonprofit has 50 full-time staff and thousands of volunteers who keep the wheels churning. Despite the waning of the pandemic, people in Chicago are increasingly using the free food that the nonprofit offers. The nonprofit has seen 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 has struggled with food stability himself. Volunteering at Nourishing Hope allows him to give back, stay sober and inspire others to serve.
INTRO: Nourishing Hope is a food pantry in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The nonprofit has seen food programs increase by 40% this year. During that time, one volunteer has logged 6,000 hours. Medill Reports’ Kala Hunter has his story.
HUNTER: Nourishing Hope has colorful panels that hang from above describing sections of produce, eggs, dry goods and dairy. It’s bright and inviting. The volunteers are scurrying to package food 30 minutes before the doors open.
Louie Herrera is always greeted with a warm welcome by other volunteers anytime he enters a room.
Volunteer: Where’s Louie?
Another volunteer: Louis!
HUNTER: Just minutes before 11 a.m., when Nourishing Hope opens, Herrera was busy working, answering phones at the reception desk
HERRERA: Friday will be here from 11 to 3 and Saturday 11 to 3. So either any of those dates.
HUNTER: Herrera is 56 years old. He is light-hearted, helpful and has an authentic, welcoming presence. He has an ability to make anyone feel comfortable right away
HERRERA: No, dear. You might have to stand in line for a second or two, or we’re gonna bring you in and then you’ll be taken care of. OK? All right, dear. See you then.
HUNTER: Herrera likes to control the music. Today it’s Motown.
After working as a brass mill operator for 29 years in Cicero, he switched careers and went to school for chemical dependency counseling, working with Lutheran Social, and realized something was off. He took unpaid leave and ended up homeless due to what he now knows is his bipolar and anxiety disorder.
HERRERA: I like being funny, and I like being a greeter. I love that. Why? Because I can interact, you know, interact. Even if “please raise your mask”. Maybe this person’s having a rough time and this person’s, you know what I mean, they’re won’t listen or they’re not because they’re not, they’re human.
HUNTER: Herrera isn’t afraid to tell members who come into Nourishing Hope to raise their mask or move ahead in line.
[Herrera tells someone to slow down.]
HERRERA: What I do is a very unconditional, I don’t want nothing. And I got 200 channels, $42 in the bank, a belly full of food, a hot place to sleep, spot to squat, what do I need? You know, what do I need? But my career, I think my, if you want to call it calling, is to do service work.
HUNTER: The same day that Herrera was told his services were no longer needed, he saw Nourishing Hope on his walk home and immediately signed up to volunteer. Volunteering is how he stays sober.
HERRERA: I knew and I know how it is to have to eat something may have fell on the floor, may have seen it in the garbage can dumpster dive, whatever the, I know how that feeling is.
HUNTER: Louie is here six days a week, and Nourishing Hope management have to insist he takes time away.
Angela Cimarusti is the manager of pantry programs at Nourishing Hope. She joined in 2019, around the same time as Herrera.
CIMARUSTI: He’s here most of the time. We try to push him to make sure he has his time outside of the pantry, but he’s very committed. He also is very helpful with like, training our new volunteers. He jokes himself that he’s a little bit of a control freak, we have to remind him sometimes 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. Herrera proudly takes one last puff of his nicotine vape pen before he starts his volunteer shift.
HERRERA: Oh yeah. It’s like Black Friday at, 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 waiting in line for a bountiful variety of food. They are young, old, speaking Spanish, Polish, Ukrainian and English as they wait.
Nourishing Hope serves between 130-200 households per day, and volunteers that go above and beyond, like Herrera, are the gears that keep it all churning.
Like Cimarusti, Nourishing Hope Marketing Director Greg Trotter finds Herrera kind, warm and welcoming.
TROTTER: I remember one day, probably about a year ago, where I was just downstairs and, you know, he answered the phone and, and just like hearing him on the phone, like, it was just like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about that. No, just come on in. We’re gonna take care of you. Just come in, you know, we’re gonna, we’re gonna take care of you however we can.” And that’s just like Louie, you know, like he just wants to bring people in and take care of ’em.
HUNTER: This year Nourishing Hope is aiming for 6,000 volunteers when its fiscal year ends on March 30th, which Trotter is confident they will hit. He says the staff at Nourishing Hope is just a slice of the people who make up the nonprofit.
TROTTER: We only have about 50 staff, and so how that augments our efforts, like, it’s not an overstatement to say like, we couldn’t do this work without our volunteers.
HUNTER: Volunteering helps Herrera stay out of his own head and relate with others who are in need of help and a little bit of hope.
HERRERA: An ounce of energy or an ounce of sweat that I put in 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 ’em hope that there is a better tomorrow because of the fact is that today you got the food.
HUNTER: If you decide to stop by Nourishing Hope. you can count on seeing Herrera.
In Lakeview, I’m Kala Hunter for Medill Reports.