With its main location just north of Boystown (at 3831 N. Broadway St.), Lakeview Pantry has been a nonprofit mainstay in Chicago's geographic LGBT community, a local magnet for those looking to volunteer their time or money to have an immediate impact on the lives of the hungry. Members of the LGBT community take part in the pantry's operation at every level from full-time staff to volunteers to clients. For all of them, Lakeview Pantry does more than provide a vital service, but a safe space welcoming of all people.
Open since 1970, the pantry distributes grocery bags containing two weeks worth of groceries to 2,800 clients per month with the help of as many as 140 volunteers per week and 10 full-time staff members. In addition to grocery distribution through its North Broadway and 1414 W. Oakdale Ave. locations, the pantry provides clothing and household goods, a home-delivery service, case management services and more.
Yet, judging by the large murals painted on the distribution area walls, the bouquets of flowers and the mere fact that the pantry is described as a "client choice model," it's clear that Lakeview Pantry values the quality of the experience for all who must rely on it.
"One thing we like to say is how we do our work is as important as what our work is," said Executive Director Gary Garland.
During distribution days (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) on North Broadway, staff and volunteers warmly greet clients (and by name if they're a regular). As they wait to select the food items they want in their bags, classical music plays in the background. For many, especially the 9 percent who are homeless, it will be the only human interactionor even eye contactthat they will have all week.
"Nobody wants to come in here to get food," Garland said. "They're hesitant to come in; it's not an easy thing and what we try to do is make it as respectful and humane as possible. We want to make sure people walk out of here with as much dignity as they walked in here with and that takes a lot of work. "
As one would expect, since the recession hit in 2008, the amount of people who need to sum up the courage to walk through the pantry's doors has increased. Upwards of 25 percent more clients have needed the pantry's services over a three-year basis and over half of all clients are first-timers.
"The reason we have a mural out in the front and lots of colors is to make sure people know this is a safe place, this is not a cold and unfriendly place," said Erin Stephens, the pantry's director of volunteers. "We want you to feel welcome and at home and safe. And that's for the volunteers tooit's just safety for everyone. "
For the pantry's three newest staff members, it's also a safe and open workplace. Bertram Rodgers and Christina Wright are two former volunteers who were recently hired to work on the development/fundraising side of the pantry's operation. Rodgers came aboard in July and Wright started working just about eight weeks ago. Both are openly gay and said that they felt like they belonged right away.
"The whole culture is a very welcoming culture," Rodgers said. "I think it's conducive to more productivity because you're having fun doing what you're doing."
Stephens, who jokes that she's outnumbered in her own office as she shares a bedroom-sized workspace with Wright and Rodgers, also said that the volunteers run the gamut and that there's no segmentationeveryone interacts and works together. She said she was particularly proud when Eva, a transgender woman in transition, felt comfortable volunteering after the pantry was recommended to her by local human-rights church aChurch4Me.
The LGBT community has also long been active in financially supporting Lakeview Pantry. The Chicago Spirit Brigade has twice donated the proceeds of one of its performances to the pantry including this past summer's Pride Parade. The Man of the Month contest at Charlie's Chicago, in which the winner chooses a beneficiary, has also helped. Even one of the pantry's active volunteers, Bob, who married his partner of 16 years recently, chose Lakeview Pantry as one of four nonprofits that he requested guests to donate to instead of bringing gifts.
Garland says that Lakeview Pantry has roughly 4,000 financial supporters, but just as common as organized donations are the spontaneous ones. Children have come in with piggy banks and people regularly leave food items at the door. The donations come in all forms and sizes and make up 60 percent of the pantry's funds. That generosity has allowed Lakeview Pantry to function without a mainline source of federal funding.
"I get emotional when I see the dollar amounts that come in," Rodgers said. "When you live in a cold urban area, people can be so cold, but I think those donations are a reflection of the true human spirit."
Wright said that with one dollar, the pantry is able to buy 10 of the 1.4 million pounds it distributes annually. Also, 90 cents of each dollar goes directly to programming efforts.
For those interested in volunteering, Lakeview Pantry is particularly in need of drivers for Saturday home delivery. Russian-speaking volunteers are also at a premium as a large percentage of clients speak very little English. Help is also needed at times sorting donations as well as with organization and cleanup. As Bootstraps, the case management program, continues to grow, the pantry is also open to having volunteers help shape what that will look like.
"It can be a little thing like a book club, but you just gave that person something in their day that was stable and secure and so maybe they'll have a little more trust the next day that the world won't fall apart," Stephens said.
For information on volunteering at Lakeview Pantry, visit www.lakeviewpantry.org/volunteer.html .