Dedicated team accounts for Niles Township Food Pantry success and its holiday drives

By Mike Isaacs
Story, Photos and Video

By the time the holiday season is over, Niles Township Food Pantry Manager Tony Araque and his team will have helped put a smile on the faces of many Niles Township families.

That “team” is far-encompassing and includes dedicated employees, compassionate volunteers, generous donors, and elected officials. They make the Food Pantry’s annual food drive in November and its toy and food drive the following month a valuable resource for families — an important way for those in need to enjoy their end-of-the-year holidays.

Then again, the Food Pantry is a treasured resource for so many Township families in need all year long.

“The Food Pantry means a lot because public aid is cutting down stamps and I have a four-member family,” said Dionne Adams during a recent Pantry visit. “I mean $16 (from public aid) is not feeding four people. When I come to the Food Pantry and can get my food, I can feed us for the month.”

Adams’ comments reflect the way many families have come to rely on the Pantry at vulnerable times in their lives.

Many of those families will receive Thanksgiving meals with all of the trimmings this month during the Pantry’s first of the two-holiday drives. Tickets for Food Pantry meals are being handed out by the Pantry as of November.

“Folks who have to seriously stretch their dollars every year probably would not be able to have a nice meal like they do without donations,” Araque said.

Thanks to community donations, as many as 2,000 families receive holiday food over two days in November, as many as 500 to 600 households receive toys for children in December.

The Township accepts donations of turkeys and other food and items, but monetary donations provide even more bang for the buck, Araque said.

“We accept any and all donations — canned goods geared toward the holidays, pies and stuff, blankets and things like that,” he said. “Yes, we would like turkeys, but we can buy them much cheaper than anybody else could.”

In fact, for the consumer cost of one turkey, Araque said, the Pantry can buy about four turkeys.

The Thanksgiving meals will be distributed Nov. 25 and 26, the first day is devoted to families with children.

The December drive allows children up to age 17 from families in need to receive a nice new game or toy for the holidays. It also includes two distribution dates — Dec. 18 and 19 this year.

During the first day, donated toys organized by gender and age fill racks inside the Food Pantry. Parents are encouraged to bring along their children who get to choose among a few toys that volunteers pull from the shelves.

Niles Township is holding a new event to boost the toy drive this year. Teamed with Niles Township High School District 219, the Township will hold Pack-the-Bus from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Target, 6150 W. Touhy Ave., Niles.

Shoppers can buy a new toy or game for children and teens and drop it off in the big bus outside the store. All toys are accepted but of special requests are LEGO games; Plush blankets; sports equipment; cosmetic sets; art supplies and Barbie dolls.

Food Pantry Volunteer Sana Ansari knows first-hand just how important the Pantry’s holiday drive can be to families. She remembers her family receiving a turkey during a year her father lost his job.

“You really learn to appreciate people more — especially during the holidays,” she said. “When you’re going through tough times, you really see how giving people can be.”

The Township’s two-holiday drives are able to help so many people because its Food Pantry is already helping so many people throughout the year.

The numbers tell that story. About 30 volunteers, including students with intellectual disabilities, work regularly at the Pantry as a key part of the team. Some 1,500 pounds of food is distributed every month to 6,000 people.

On a recent early Friday morning, a coolish autumn day that left fallen leaves scattered across the Township grounds, the scene in and around the pantry brimmed with activity.

The unloading of the large green and yellow Greater Chicago Food Depository truck required a concerted effort by staff and volunteers; everything needed to be taken from the truck, and food needed to be readied for distribution to clients in the adjoining room a short time later.

Carts packed with new food were wheeled across the Pantry warehouse floor, eggs stacked on shelves, cold food taken to refrigerators and freezers. Araque said food delivery day is among the most hectic times of the week, but a hard-working and united team seemed to be handling the commotion just fine.

Katherine Nichols, a long-time food pantry volunteer from Michigan, recently moved to the area to be closer to family. She said she heard many good things about the Niles Township Food Pantry and wasted little time in reaching out. She now volunteers every week, often with her daughter.

“Tony and the people here run this so well,” she said while stacking eggs onto a cart on this busy Friday. “I’ve always felt it was worthwhile to give back, it’s a good use of my time, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”

You don’t have to look far to see just what such commitment — shared by many in the Niles Township Food Pantry world — means to the clients who shop there up to two times a month, not including the holiday drives.

“It’s really helped me and my family,” said Joanne Berg, a single mother with two children living at home. “It’s meant the difference between making it or not.”

Berg formerly worked in echocardiographs, but she dislocated her shoulder in a car accident and had to go on disability. She now drives for Lyft when she can, she said, but it’s a challenge.

“This has been a temporary godsend,” she said after shopping on this Friday.

Benjamin Frazier of Skokie is also a client of the Food Pantry due to significant health challenges. Having lived in several areas, he said he only wished other pantries lived up to Niles Township’s high standards.

“People who are residing in this area really need this…they depend on it including me,” he said. “I’m living off a fixed income at this point due to my health. I have congestive heart failure and working has been a problem.”

Compounding the problem is that employers have not wanted to carry the liability once they have discovered his condition, he said. The Food Pantry has made a monumental difference in his life.

“This place has been like a true relief and a blessing as far as my economic situation goes,” Frazier said. “I couldn’t say a bad thing about this place at all. It’s clean. The workers are hospitable. It’s just all kudos here.”

Araque said the Food Pantry team works together toward the same important goal of helping people at difficult times in their lives.

“Our motto here at the Niles Township Food Pantry is ‘Serving Food with Dignity,’” he said. “I hope we have accomplished that goal.”

How You Can Help

Niles Township Government and Niles Township High School District 219 will hold a Pack-The-Bus fundraiser from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 7 at Target, 6150 W. Touhy Ave. in Niles. Please buy a toy or a game and drop it right inside our bus for donation to the Niles Township Food Pantry’s annual toy drive on your way to your vehicle.

Monetary donations can be made to the Niles Township Food Pantry Foundation, 5255 Lincoln Ave., Skokie, 60777.

Mike Isaacs serves as the Public Relations Outreach Coordinator for Niles Township Government. In a career spanning more than 35 years as a journalist, he has covered Skokie and Niles Township for both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times via Pioneer Press. He has won awards for both feature and news reporting and writing and his work has appeared in multiple publications in addition to Pioneer Press. He can be reached at isaacsmike1960@gmail.com.