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5 Questions: Lyle Allen, Care for Real

Meet Lyle Allen, Executive Director of Care for Real.

Originally from St. Louis, Lyle has lived in Chicago for over 20 years and is proud to call Edgewater home.  As the previous director of the League of Chicago Theatres and the Green City Market, Lyle became the Executive Director of Care for Real about 18 months ago, and fervently believes the way the Edgewater community has wholeheartedly embraced Care for Real is unlike anything he has ever seen.

It was while Lyle was serving at Green City Market, which was one of the very first Farmer’s Markets to accept LINK cards (and once that program was established – even in a ‘wealthy’ area like Lincoln Park – the need was obvious and the program was overwhelmed) that his eyes were opened to just how many neighbors were suffering, especially those you may never expect.

A lover of social media (like Care for Real’s facebook page and follow Lyle on twitter!), Lyle’s positive, forward-thinking attitude and jovial laugh is transforming Care for Real into a full-fledged social service agency.  As he says, “it’s both personally and professionally fulfilling to leave work every day and know that I made a difference in someone’s life.”

Care for Real will celebrate its 44th anniversary this year and is one of the largest social service organizations in Chicago (largest based on needs met, not based on staff – in fact, Care for Real only has 3 full-time staffers, which means 94% of their funding goes directly to support programs and only 6% to cover administrative and fundraising expenses.  This is exceptionally efficient compared to other non-profits, who often have 20% or more of funding dedicated to administrative and fundraising expenses). For these reasons and more, Care for Real has received a ‘gold’ designation by GuideStar (a major charity rating system) and the “Goal” Award for community service from The Sacred Heart Schools.

Care for Real was founded in 1970 by a group of local faith-based organizations now known as the ECRA (Edgewater Community Religious Association), which continues to meet monthly and support Care for Real’s work. Lyle credits the amazing volunteer force, from Loyola students to seniors who live in the Admiral and the Breakers, to former clients who give back, for keeping administrative costs low.  On any given food and clothing distribution day, approximately 40 volunteers are on hand to help.  Care for Real is open to receive and distribute donations on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9am-12pm, on Friday afternoon from 3-5pm, and on Saturdays from 9am-1pm.

1)    Some say the economy is beginning to turn around.  Are you seeing less of a need at Care for Real?

Some media outlets may claim the economy is getting better, but from what we see, it is not.  Despite the horrible cold, in February we had record numbers of people at our door – Care for Real served 2,151 households (4,180 people) last month.  Approximately 60% of those we serve are seniors and families with children under age 18.  They are working class poor – meaning they are working hard, but on a minimum wage job they just can’t make ends meet.  With food costs increasing, gas prices rising and cuts to SNAP benefits, we are seeing more of a need now than ever.  I know there is concern regarding the system being abused, but our typical client visits Care for Real only 7x/year.

2)     Access to affordable, healthy food is often an issue for those in need.  Donation drives, understandably, often collect preserved food with questionable nutrition content.  How do you ensure that nutritious food is available?

It is my personal mission to ensure access to nutritional food, not just food.  It is great to fill bellies but to do so in a truly nourishing way is the future.  I am proud that Care for Real is a preferred beneficiary of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Panera Bread and Fortune Fish.  We also partner with local food retailers like Urban Orchard and True Nature Foods. Many of the farmers from Green City, Andersonville and Edgewater farmer’s markets have followed me to Care for Real, and we frequently receive donations at the end of the day or season of fresh, sustainable, local produce.  These donations are absolutely treasured.  Editor’s note: Like so many of us, Lyle is very excited about the Whole Foods opening on N. Broadway and is hoping to partner with Mariano’s after they open next month on Foster and Sheridan.  Yes, we asked, and no, he doesn’t have any inside info on exact dates for those openings.

3)    What was Care for Real’s biggest success in 2013, and what are you looking forward to in 2014?

In February of 2013, Chicago Public Schools selected Care for Real as the social service agency to launch a new program called “Food Share.”  Schools often have produce left over at the end of the day, and we wanted to ensure that didn’t get wasted.  After all, the need for a nutritious meal doesn’t simply disappear after students leave school.  So we started picking it up! By May of 2013, we had 5 schools participating, and now we pick up food from FIFTEEN schools every Friday.  The quantities vary weekly, but over 10 tons of fresh produce has been distributed through the “Food Share” program.

Also in 2013, we were thrilled to be the recipients of grants from the Joshua J. and Eunice Stone Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, which will allow us to purchase and install a 22 ft. stainless steel walk-in cooler and freezer.  That’s what I’m most looking forward to in 2014 – right now we are running 10-15 individual refrigerators and freezers, which is difficult from a volunteer rotation perspective, causes a terribly expensive electricity bill, and is hard on the products.  With the new cooler, we’ll be able to increase inventory, better preserve current produce, and create a superior volunteer experience.

We are also looking forward to continuing our “Chefs Care for Real” and “Theatres Care for Real” programs.  Our aim is to have a different local restaurant or theatre host “Care for Real” nights every month, where a portion of the proceeds are donated to Care for Real.  Special thanks to Broadway Cellars, Big Jones, Uncommon Ground, Steep Theatre and Raven Theatre for participating last year, and stay tuned for announcements about participants this year!

4)    Care for Real’s pet pantry is a pretty unique program.  How did it start?

Yes, our Pet Pantry is one of very few Chicago programs that support pets by providing food.  We receive pet pantry clients from all over the city, not just the Edgewater area, and in 2013, over 3,000 pets were fed.  Pet pantry clients are primarily single senior citizens – all they have is their pet.  When someone comes to Care for Real for the first time, after filling out some paperwork, they are interviewed by a case manager.  Those interviews continue on a quarterly basis, and it was through these interviews that we began to see that seniors were going hungry to feed their pet.  Patti from Bark Bark Club has been absolutely instrumental in recruiting donations from local veterinarians and Petco, and we recently received a $5,000 grant from Banfield Charitable Trust, which will last about 6 months.  Distribution days have become social events where folks share pictures of their pets.  I’m pretty sure this is the one time a month many of these clients get out of the house, so the program has become more than feeding pets, it’s also about fostering community for those who may feel isolated and alone.

5)    What is the best way for our community to support Care for Real?

Thank you for asking! Cash donations are always appreciated, as that is the most flexible and can go wherever it is most needed.  Given the amount of pick-ups we do from schools, Petco, Whole Foods, ect; gas cards are also a big need.  If you make a donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, you can designate it to Care for Real, but we pay for the food that we receive from them so your donations will go farther if given directly to us.

Many of our clients are immigrants and refugees who are experiencing their first Chicago winter, so right now, donations of winter clothing (coats, hats, gloves, scarves) are really needed.  We’ve partnered with the Red Cross and Pan African Association to host “education” days for this community, as refugees often do not know how to operate a gas stove or use a can opener…basic things we take for granted growing up in a first world country.  At every one of these events, each participant leaves with a bag full of groceries.

Finally, we would love to see all of Edgewater join us and participate in Care for Real’s 2nd Annual EdgeWalk to End Hunger – a 3k walk that will take place in September 2014.


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