It's the kind of story that can break your heart, especially around the holidays-a man in the community, a veteran, is on the verge of getting evicted. He's having trouble making ends meet due to the intense cost of recent medical bills. It's a story we hear all too often.
Luckily, unlike so many versions of this story, this one has a happy ending. The man got in touch with Scott Best and Caitlin Sammons at Common Pantry, who launched a crowdfunding page for him through a site called Benevolent. "Within a week, we had raised enough for a month's rent and bus cards so he could go to job fairs," says Sammons, the Program Manager for Common Pantry. "The community responded to him so quickly." Not only was he able to stay in his apartment, but he found a part-time job and is now living self-sufficiently.
Sammons says she, Best and the volunteers hear stories like this from clients every week. The woman with four kids who was connected to a job in at-home senior care. The one who volunteers helped get an ID, or a SNAP card. "They add up," Sammons says.
Common Pantry is one of the longest-running community-focused food pantries in Chicago, in operation since 1967 and based here in the Northcenter neighborhood since 1985. Although emergency food distribution has always been at Common Pantry's core, Best and his team have dedicated more resources and efforts to identifying the root causes of poverty and food insecurity and doing what they can to break these cycles. Best also noticed that with the Wednesday afternoon food distribution, they had a captive audience with which to present these resources. With this in mind, the team launched Common Community formally in 2012, and it's been growing ever since. "It really began as a research project to see what more we could do," Best says. "We started with a service desk, asking our clients what they needed."
Now, every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Common Pantry not only distributes food and offers community members in need a hot meal, but also provides important resources. It began with the basics: the team would help clients get SNAP cards, apply for disability and other benefits. Earlier in 2014, they partnered with the City of Chicago on a housing initiative, connecting clients with shelters, affordable housing and resources to deal with eviction.
Lately, with the launch of the Affordable Care Act, Common Pantry are seeking to bring in more experts around health care. Student nurses from the University of Illinois at Chicago give preventative health screenings. PresenceHealth works with clients to navigate insurance issues and applying for healthcare through ACA. An organization called Healing Foundations even comes in and provides stress relief and acupuncture for clients, a huge hit!
Experts have come in to work with clients on everything from cooking with healthy ingredients to budgeting. ONE Northside came to register voters. Even the food pantry itself is designed to promote self-sufficiency and give clients a sense of autonomy. After the boxes upon boxes of collected goods is the pantry's "convenience store," where they can use points to select goods from the pantry based on wants and needs. This model is being adopted by food pantries across the country, with Common Pantry at the forefront of the movement.
"We want to take a bite out of the population who needs our services," Best says. "If we just distribute food-and we will continue to do so-we won't change the number of people in need. This way, all our efforts gel together and we are able to address the triggers that bring people into our space."
As Common Pantry continues to galvanize this program and focus their efforts on certain issues, Best advises business owners and community members get involved with the Common Community program. They are specifically looking for people who can help clients find employment and assist with things like resume writing, mock interviews and other professional tips. The healthcare initiative is also in full swing, with clients particularly in need of access to dental care and dental health resources. Best is also seeking local restaurants to provide ingredients and serve at the weekly hot lunch at the pantry.
But no matter your skill set, you can be a part of this great organization that helps our community!