December 8, 2022 | Empowering Our Neighbors

Cliff’s Neighbor Staff Story

When Cliff Gillette started volunteering with us 14 years ago, he never thought it would shape so much of his retirement, let alone become a family affair.

Now, the 77-year-old widower works full-time as a lead “SNAP-per” for the Food Bank, helping neighbors across Northern Illinois navigate their way out of food insecurity by connecting them with food pantries and aid agencies, and guiding them through the application process for state benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP.

Cliff likes to draw on a movie analogy to explain his job. “Do you remember the scene in Forrest Gump when he is sitting on a park bench with a box of chocolates?” Cliff stresses that his movie analogy is not meant to be trivial. Each experience with each neighbor is so drastically different, he says, and everyone needs support in different ways. “Every call I get is the box of chocolates sitting in front of me. And I never know what I’ll get.”

Cliff works remotely and divides his time between his home in Rockford and his daughter’s home in Ohio. All he needs to do his job is his computer and a secure internet connection – along with patience and a strong sense of empathy.

Cliff confesses that earlier in life when he worked as a retail manager, he thought that all a person needed to support themselves and their family was a job. Then he started volunteering at our center in Rockford and his view completely changed.

“The Food Bank was one of my really first volunteer [experiences] I’d ever done in my life,” Cliff says. “When I started working with the Food Bank the intensity was so impressive.”

Cliff took a part-time position with our newly formed SNAP team then, and said that interacting with neighbors who needed help really changed his perspective as he learned all the different reasons someone might need food assistance.

He remembers meeting a senior couple who had worked all their lives. They both received Social Security, but found themselves having to stretch their budget as they tried to decide between paying for medicine or food. “There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people out there in these situations,” Cliff says.

He took several years off from working with the Food Bank, returning to full-time employment, then officially retiring, which is when his wife fell ill, ultimately passing a year later.

He describes her illness and his following grief as “adjusting to his wife’s journey,” adding, “I took several years to do that before I came back to the Food Bank.”

And here is where Cliff’s story takes a twist.

Cliff had introduced his son, Chris (who had a background in restaurants) to food banking all those years ago in Rockford. But while Cliff took time off in his retirement, Chris worked at a food bank in South Carolina. But life works in mysterious ways and both Gillettes found themselves starting work here at Northern Illinois Food Bank in 2019. Chris now directs the operations team at our West Suburban Center in Geneva.

“Like me, he got infected,” Cliff jokes, admitting that there probably aren’t many father-son duos working in food banking.

Cliff’s life experience and dedication have made him known within the Food Bank as someone who goes beyond the call to ensure our neighbors know about the services we provide. 

He will work with them through the SNAP application process. The online application is 17 pages, Cliff says, and can be complicated, needing follow-up information. “We’re here for you at the beginning. And we are here for you on the other side,” he says, then adds with emphasis, “We don’t make the decisions.”

“Even when we can’t help them get SNAP benefits because of income guidelines, we can find other ways to help them,” he says. “We still do agency outreach and we connect with agencies a lot.” Those agencies include food pantries, soup kitchens, senior and child services, and more.

His advice to anyone who needs assistance, but isn’t sure they qualify for SNAP: “Call us. We will figure something out to help. Just call us.”