Ellen’s Story

Overcoming Food Insecurity with the Help of a Food Bank

“I was a single mom. I was working full-time but still not making enough. It was either food or bills.”

Ellen Croce is a volunteer and former client of the HCS Pantry in Hinsdale, Illinois. Her story is one of resilience and hope in the face of food insecurity. When Ellen first started using the food pantry, she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She had two young daughters, one of whom had a heart transplant at the age of two. Despite working full-time, Ellen found it difficult to provide enough food for her family.

Ellen’s situation is not uncommon. Many families in the United States struggle with food insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. In fact, the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which partners with HCS Pantry, estimates that over 800,000 people in its service area face food insecurity.

Finding Community at the Pantry

Ellen’s experience with the food pantry was life-changing. Despite feeling humiliated and depressed at first, she found that the staff and volunteers treated her with respect and kindness. “They treat you like you’re human,” Ellen says. “They treat you like, ‘Thank you so much for coming in today.’ That is a huge thing for somebody’s confidence for raising children. For me to know that I could take care of my children, and there are people that are not judging you. That’s huge.”

Neighbor, Volunteer, and Partner

Ellen’s experience with the food bank not only gave her the confidence to provide for her family but also inspired her to give back to her community. As she explains, “As well as being helped, I needed to help.” Ellen became a volunteer at the HCS Pantry and helped open a new food pantry in Willowbrook. She credits the food bank with giving her the self-confidence to move forward and help others. “Donors and volunteers are so much more important than they think they are,” she says. “Please keep doing it. Please share it with your family and your friends. Invite them to come and help. Invite them to be a part of being this place that helps our neighbors.”

Neighbors. Empowered.

Ellen’s story is a testament to the power of food banks and the importance of supporting them. Donors and volunteers play a crucial role in providing food and resources to families like Ellen’s. As Ellen says, “Donors and volunteers are so much more important than they think they are. They are amazing people who give their time, their money sometimes, the food. Please keep doing it. Please share it with your family and your friends. Invite them to come and help. Invite them to be a part of being this place that helps our neighbors.”

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, let’s remember the impact that food banks can have on people’s lives. Let’s continue to support and volunteer at our local food banks and work towards a future where no one has to go hungry.

Volunteer if you can. And keep on donating. It means the world to people.

Janet’s Volunteer Story

When Janet Deisenroth describes her volunteer schedule, she starts with the qualifier “when it’s not golf season.”

That’s because Janet, a 63-year-old retired data analyst, is an avid golfer, and that’s a daytime sport. Her other favorite sport to play, ice hockey, doesn’t interfere with her volunteer schedule as much because her league games are in the evenings. “And I run a women’s league how-to-play hockey group on Sundays,” she adds.

That’s why Janet needs to qualify her schedule. So, in warm months, she “only” volunteers a couple days a week.

In the colder months, you can find Janet on some Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays volunteering in our North Suburban Center in Lake County. Or you might see her at Mobile Markets at College of Lake County, Fox Lake and Waukegan’s Cristo Rey. Sometimes she even helps at special events.

“I like to keep busy, and I think it’s a good cause,” she explains.

Janet’s favorite volunteer job is on Wednesdays as site lead at two distributions for our online food pantry, My Pantry Express. That’s where she gets to interact directly with neighbors, “especially the regulars,” she says. “You kind of get to know them. I enjoy talking to them. You see all that stuff you’re doing when you’re working the warehouse. You see the result and how grateful they are.”

It was a My Pantry Express distribution that created one of her most memorable neighbor interactions.  It was about eight months after the hard shutdown of the pandemic in late 2020.

“One day a lady came up. She had become a regular. She said, ‘I’m so sad today.’” Janet asked why she was sad. “‘I got a job so I don’t need to visit you anymore,’ she answered.”

The woman was so excited for her new job and so thankful for all the help she had received. “It really made you feel like standing out in the cold or the heat [at food distributions] was really, really worth it. People are so appreciative, it makes you want to come back next week.”

Did that neighbor stop coming? “I told her that it was OK to keep coming as she got back on her feet. Pay a few bills. You might need some new clothes for this job. Let us help you.”

And that neighbor took the advice, returning to pick up food for a few weeks.

Janet has been a regular volunteer for about six years. Before that she had taken part in corporate volunteer groups about twice a year, and always enjoyed the experience.

After her retirement, when she found herself alone on Saturdays because her husband still worked those days, she recalled that corporate volunteer experience. “It was winter. We retired in January. What else could I pick up?” she wondered. “I remembered that it’s always fun working at the Food Bank.”

Her first volunteer shift after retiring? “I went alone,” she says. “I just went that first time. I walked in not sure what to expect.” And everyone made her feel right at home.

When her oldest grandchild turned 8, Janet starting turning some of that volunteer time into family time, when she would bring him to participate in some volunteer shifts in the warehouse on Saturdays. That was three years ago and now he’s 11.

“Volunteering is something he and I have in common,” Janet says. “I think it’s important they understand that not everyone is as lucky as they are.”

His visits were paused during the pandemic because it would have been difficult for him to social distance – he loves interacting with all the other volunteers, especially some of the regulars whom he’s gotten to know. But their schedule is back to normal now.

Some of the volunteer jobs are not as much fun for him, Janet admits. Recently they processed a batch of onions, discarding any bad ones and bagging the others to give out through food pantries and distributions. “He said, ‘It was really terrible, but I’ll still come back.’ ” Another grandson tells Janet that he can’t wait for his turn to volunteer, when he turns eight. He’s five now. She says maybe, someday, all five of her grandchildren will be able to volunteer with her. “They are all looking forward to it.”

Tim’s Volunteering Story

The first time Tim Z. volunteered, he didn’t think he would like it. His daughter needed volunteer service hours for her high school, so they decided to try the Food Bank’s South Suburban Center in Joliet.

“This wasn’t where I wanted to be. It’s actually kind of funny because I was just like, `Oh, I got to go there and volunteer.’ But I fell in love here. I fell in love with all the volunteers that were coming and helping other people out.”

It’s been over three years and Tim, who is 51, is now a volunteer supervisor in the South Suburban Center.

“The amount of volunteers that come through this building – we’ve grown into a family. That’s what it’s turned out to be here,” he says.

He and his daughter have worked just about every job there is in the Food Bank’s distribution center, from relabeling cans of vegetables to packaging cereal. And he has learned a lot about food banking, food pantries and the people they serve, who come for a wide variety of reasons.

When he walked in the door for that first volunteer shift, “I really didn’t know too much about food pantries. I mean, I thought it was pretty much just the homeless on the street,” Tim says.

We caught up with Tim in late February when he was supervising My Pantry Express, the Food Bank’s online food pantry, which offers evening pickup hours directly for neighbors out of our South Suburban Center.

“I interact with everyone that comes through here and it’s as if they’re my own brother or sister,” he says.

He tells the story of meeting a mother and daughter one night the previous winter, which was during the height of the pandemic. They were in the drive-up food pickup line in an old truck that was on the verge of quitting. “I kept on telling her, ‘Keep the foot on the gas because that vehicle cannot die.’ And it died out front and it was cold,” he says. “And I told my sis, ‘Come on in here, sit down. I will get somebody. I’ll get your truck running again.’ And I pulled my vehicle over to jump her vehicle. And she just was sitting in here and you could see that she was cold.”

A year later, she is still a regular at My Pantry Express. “Like I said, she’s like a sister to me and she’s always laughing, smiling. Her daughter’s always laughing,” he says. “Her smile on her face just lightens us. So, she’s come a long ways and I mean, she touched my heart.”

Tim had been out of town for a few weeks working his regular job as a construction foreman. This neighbor and many others noticed his absence, and cared.

“I’ve gone through a lot on a personal side this past year with my own family. And she was asking, even when I wasn’t here, ‘How’s Tim doing? How’s Tim doing?’ Asking all the volunteers and that. So, I mean, a lot of them are asking how I’m doing.”

He circles back to the idea of laughter and smiling. It’s important to him, as it’s a way to offer hope and recognition.

“All of us back there are always smiling,” he says. “If you’re not making them smile, they’re going to feel afraid to come back. So, we’re trying to encourage them to come back every week. I remind them, ‘Put your order in when you go home tonight.’”

Tim’s smile and dedication has earned him recognition as one of our outstanding volunteers.

“They all call me El Presidento,” he says, a name that comes from the early days of setting up My Pantry Express in Joliet, when his leadership and organizational skills were put to good use.

“I don’t ask for anything back. I joke about the paycheck,” he says, “because it’s something funny and that, but even if I did get a paycheck, I’d be donating it right now. I mean, because I’m not here for no money. I’m not here for no recognition and no employee of the year. In my eyes, employee of the year is everyone that comes in here to volunteer.”

He also donates hand-made bag toss (aka cornhole) game sets to the volunteer program in Joliet. “I do it on the side,” he says. “I make them for other people and that, but it’s something to give back to the ones who volunteer for us. As a thank you for coming out.”

“The volunteers here are like a family,” he says. “We come here so we’re all together to serve.”

And that service – whether that be a donation of time, food or money – is important. “You’re making a big difference by your donation,” he says. “It is hitting every person that’s in need. And in my eyes, everybody at one time in their life will need assistance. Everybody will.”