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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Loaves & Fishes Community Services: 35 years-plus of compassion and hope


As Loaves & Fishes Community Services celebrates 35 years, a look back through the ages has shown remarkable change and growth in response to ever increasing need. The overarching theme throughout, however, is a profound commitment to serving others with dignity, compassion and hope. Countless individuals have stepped up over the years to provide leadership, food, to volunteer, to support, and encourage our neighbors in need as they work to overcome, in many cases, overwhelming challenges. It is a great privilege to be entrusted to walk with our neighbors on a deeply personal journey toward self-sufficiency. Their resilience inspires us daily.

The Beginning

In the early 1980’s, a group of compassionate members of the St. Raphael Service Ministry Commission were volunteering in a Chicago soup kitchen. Concerned about similar needs in Naperville, in 1984 they set up a closet at St. Raphael Catholic Church and welcomed those in need to come for two bags of groceries each month. Originally named after the powerful Bible story that still resonates today, “Loaves & Fishes Pantry” became a resource that served eight families the first year.

In 1987 as the needs expanded, a trailer was attached to the back of the church to provide additional space. Soon, the busy pantry outgrew one parish, and it was necessary to seek help from all the churches – it became a true community pantry.

Stories that were both inspiring and fun emerged. For Thanksgiving, the group decided they wanted to give turkeys to the clients. They put out a call for turkeys and nearly immediately had 200 turkeys. Volunteers described the amusement of seeing 200 frozen turkeys scattered on the floor and having to dance around the slippery birds.

Early Years

Nineteen-ninety saw a recession that negatively impacted people of all economic levels and greatly increased the need for services. Homes were in foreclosure and families were moving in with their parents to stretch dollars. In February of 1991, representatives of many area churches and civic groups met to discuss structuring the pantry in a more formal manner and make sure the growing demand for services could be adequately addressed.

With the assistance of the City of Naperville, Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry was officially incorporated. The first item on their agenda was to seek a larger, more permanent home. This was finally accomplished at 458 West Fifth Avenue, though the facility had to be transformed from a transmission shop to a food pantry. The Grand Opening was January 19, 1992. The first mission statement was to “give food to those in need” and 236 families were served that year.

One former client recently described being left with two children to raise by herself in the early 90’s. She said, “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found Loaves & Fishes.”

Loaves & Fishes focused on one thing: distributing food. In 1994, a van was donated, which helped tremendously to pick up donated bread, in-season farm produce, and trips to the recycler with cardboard boxes. They also obtained funds for a walk-in refrigerator and freezer which greatly expanded their ability to serve.

The archives note that “another blessing was received” through the efforts of Father Donnelly of St. Raphael. He felt so strongly about the pantry that he instituted the monthly envelope for those who wished to support the pantry financially. This wonderful generosity continues today.

Continued Growth

In 1999, Loaves & Fishes was bursting at the seams and needed to expand as they had approximately 3,000 client visits for food that year. At that time, they moved down the street to 556 West Fifth Avenue. Their next initiative was to begin a Community Outreach program by making home deliveries to assist senior citizens and disabled residents living in low-income housing. They delivered groceries directly to Katherine Manor, Charles Court, Ogden Manor, Martin Avenue, and Maple Court. These deliveries, along with others, continue.

In 2002, Loaves & Fishes added a second warehouse to accommodate the growth of more than 9,000 client visits yearly. Because of this, they were able to give space to Naperville CARES, which provided financial counseling, emergency assistance, and help locating affordable housing. This relationship continued, ultimately resulting in the joining of the two entities.

Food pantries of the past often assembled a bag of items that were then handed out to the clients. While the items were of course appreciated, many times clients were unable to eat some of the foods. In 2008, “client choice” was established which meant that the clients themselves chose the items they would like. In addition to being far more efficient with less waste, it added dignity to a difficult time in a client’s life. Shopping carts made the experience even more comfortable for families.

For many years, Loaves & Fishes had kept its service area within Naperville. As those requesting help grew, Loaves & Fishes expanded to serve all of DuPage County. This allowed Loaves & Fishes to assist a significantly greater number of clients.

Move to High Grove Lane

As the Fifth Avenue location became busier and busier, the challenges of operating there mounted. As it was located in a multi-use industrial complex, large semi-trucks were navigating the small parking lot at the same time families with children were trying to come to Loaves & Fishes. It was difficult to unload food without a loading dock, and there was little refrigeration. The office area also had no heating or cooling.

Land was acquired on High Grove Lane and plans began to take shape for a new building. This was a monumental effort that required a huge leap of faith; there were definitely skeptics. But in 2011, the building at 1871 High Grove Lane was opened. The facility provided far more refrigeration and freezers. The loading dock facilitated the large amount of food being acquired and there was space for sorting it, too. The market became a true grocery store allowing clients to easily move through the aisles. After moving to High Grove Lane, the number of clients being served continued to grow. Volunteers continued to play a key role, too. In 2012, volunteers served more than 66,250 hours or the equivalent of 32 full-time employees.

An emphasis on healthy food was reinforced via a new Nutrition Council made up of industry experts such as registered dietitians. This group provided guidance about what foods to pursue and offer. Additionally, empowerment programs were introduced to help with the many other challenges struggling families were facing. These included help with tax preparation, public benefits, employment assistance, and financial education. To reflect the expanded services, the name was changed to Loaves & Fishes Community Services.

Merger with Naperville CARES

Loaves & Fishes evolved their service to meet the needs of the increasing population of low-income residents and was excelling at providing reliable access to nutritious food. Naperville CARES had similar beginnings determining there were both private and public organizations doing good work in the community but with little coordination or cooperation among them. Naperville CARES was incorporated in 1999 to fill this gap in services and became the leader in homeless prevention services in the Naperville area through their emergency assistance and car donation programs.

In July of 2016 these two strong, like-minded agencies merged their operations and programs to optimize the level of care offered to the community. The homeless prevention programs of Naperville CARES have been integrated into what was formerly known as the Loaves & Fishes Empowerment Programs and renamed the Loaves & Fishes CARES Programs. These programs now include emergency assistance, car donations, resource meetings, public benefits applications, tax preparation, job search assistance, legal assistance and Moving Up, a 16-session intensive program to help clients overcome barriers that keep them from self-sufficiency.

Through community partnerships Loaves & Fishes is also a site for computer training presented by the People’s Resource Center, financial literacy through H.O.M.E. DuPage, and emotional counseling through SamaraCare and the Fox Valley Institute.

One of the core challenges faced by the low-income residents served is the lack of sufficient income to meet their basic needs due to unemployment or under employment. While the economy has experienced growth, much of the job growth has occurred in the service sector that does not pay a living wage. These jobs can be characterized by unstable employment with frequent layoffs, part-time and inconsistent hours without benefits. Coupled with the high cost of housing in DuPage County, low-income families have little, if any, financial cushion so an unexpected bill or loss of income due to an illness can put a family at risk for homelessness. The Loaves & Fishes CARES programs address such challenges.

Lasting Impact

Today, one in five individuals is living in poverty or with a low-income in DuPage County. This is an 82 percent increase since the year 2000. To optimize impact and meet the growing need for services, earlier this year Loaves & Fishes introduced a new strategic plan, Lasting Impact. With emphasis on healthy food and impactful programs, the agency is focused on the overall health of clients and self-sufficiency. By working with our grocery partners, Loaves & Fishes has been able to substantially increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables offered, which is what clients have indicated they prefer, and studies have shown are most beneficial. Our food rescue partners play a huge role in that, contributing nearly 60 percent of the food distributed. Loaves & Fishes has made a resounding commitment to healthy food, rather than inexpensive fillers or food with no nutritional value. A new nutrition policy discourages candy, energy drinks and soda. Loaves & Fishes has continued to provide leadership throughout the county on food security. In 2018, Loaves & Fishes developed a Food Security Council comprised of industry leaders in DuPage County to determine how best to address food insecurity from a larger perspective.

The commitment to overall health of clients does not stop with food. Loaves & Fishes is also focused on mental health and financial health as well. A new self-sufficiency matrix includes the many elements needed to live an economically stable, productive, emotionally healthy life. The Loaves & Fishes CARES programs, along with the grocery assistance programs are helping struggling families move toward self-sufficiency. A partnership in Bolingbrook led to a satellite distribution center for families in those areas left without services when another agency closed. And the extraordinary commitment of the volunteers continues to grow. Last year, they contributed 100,377 hours which is the equivalent of 50 full time employees. 19,800 unique individuals were served through 43,446 visits by Loaves & Fishes in 2019.

In Store for Tomorrow

As Loaves & Fishes Community Services looks toward the future, there are many exciting opportunities ahead, such as the expanded use of technology. A virtual food drive has been developed, technology is in the works for better communicating with clients, and online ordering is also being explored. Loaves & Fishes was delighted to have been chosen by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for a BANC (Booth Alumni Nonprofit Consulting) project exploring topics such as future delivery models, space configuration, and geographic service area. This project is just getting underway.

There have been a multitude of changes over the years. Countless former clients have shared how meaningful the experience was for them and that their lives were changed forever. One woman said, “You have touched me to the core of my soul.”

Everyone at Loaves & Fishes is deeply honored to carry forward the compassionate mission that began at St. Raphael 35 years ago.

“For 35 years Loaves & Fishes has been a vital resource for those in need driven by our incredible volunteers, support of our community, and devoted Board and staff,” said Mike Havala, Loaves & Fishes CEO. “We are deeply grateful for all those who have stepped up to end hunger and transform lives, and look forward to working together as we write the next chapter.”

Historical information from the archives of Loaves & Fishes.

Nancy Wiersum is Executive Vice President Advancement for Loaves & Fishes Community Services. Contact her at nwiersum@loaves-fishes.org. To learn more about Loaves & Fishes, please visit  www.loaves-fishes.org. Here is the link for ways to give and to participate in the virtual food drive.

Click here for the 2020 update, “A Year Later,” since this story was first published to recognize the growth and development of Loaves & Fishes’ first 35 years.

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Nancy Wiersum
Nancy Wiersumhttp://www.loaves-fishes.org/
Nancy Wiersum is Vice President of Advancement at Loaves & Fishes Community Services and can be contacted at nwiersum@loaves-fishes.org. Visit www.loaves-fishes.org for more information.

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