Around 40 years ago, Catherine Cox fell in love with Chicago while visiting a friend and made it her home. Her career there has been varied – at first working for an alternative newspaper, then opening her own craft supply store and eventually landing in product development. Then, at the onset of the pandemic, she left the corporate world for a social enterprise. Currently, she seeks out other social enterprises that practice fair trade and give workers a fair wage to represent and sell goods for, like a group she found in India who turns trash into beautiful fabrics for things like purses. Her company also creates products by employing people with barriers to fair wage employment.
In short, Catherine cares about people and her community. A decade ago, even before she aligned her job with her advocacy interests, Catherine began volunteering with Chicago Cares, an organization that connects volunteers with their many community partners who need manpower. Among other things, Catherine has dedicated time to multiple programs addressing food insecurity over the years including the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Oakley Square apartments and, most recently, the Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I went to a small high school, and we went with a public health doctor on his rounds once into areas of Washington, D.C., I’d never been before. Seeing that was eye-opening, and it drove me to want to help people.
Tell us about your volunteer role with Chicago Cares.
In 2017, I was invited to train to be a volunteer leader as part of a pilot program. When I finished, I took a role planning and cooking dinner in a shelter for unhoused youth. I’m not a cook, so my friends thought this was pretty funny. I had to plan the menu for around 30 people, buy the groceries and work with volunteers to engage the young people who were there.
When you’re cooking with these kids, they teach you things. Every time I chop a red pepper, I think about a kiddo who showed me a good way to do it. Another kid got a ceramic mug, turned it over and said you can sharpen a knife by using the bottom of a ceramic mug.
That had to end when the pandemic hit. One of the best – and safest – places to volunteer after that was the Greater Chicago Food Depository, so I led a lot of groups there. You never know if you’re going to be sorting apples or getting corn off a truck. Or you can pack beans. It all goes so fast. It’s like that I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory where everything’s falling off the conveyor belt.
When things started opening up again, I ended up at the Hyde Park Kenwood Food Pantry on the South Side. I do that as often as I can with a group of about five Chicago Cares volunteers and another really committed group that comes through the managing church. I work with individual families—neighborhood residents, new immigrants, etc.— to help select and gather fresh and packaged food they need.
What inspired you to get started with these food-based initiatives?
When I came to Chicago, I volunteered for Planned Parenthood for a long time. After that, I did stuff with my kids’ schools. Ten or 12 years ago, I was at a crossroads. I was getting divorced and was looking for change, so I started doing lots of different things: Habitat for Humanity, The Humble Design— they furnish homes for people emerging from homelessness — and served some cooked breakfasts in a shelter for homeless teens and an emergency shelter run by the Night Ministry Architecture Foundation.
Then, I stumbled on Chicago Cares. That’s been my volunteering home ever since. It’s got a robust website of opportunities. It’s a wonderful way to learn about the city, meet new people and broaden your horizons. I think it’s criminal that people in this country are hungry, so I gravitate towards projects that address food insecurity. Even while I’ve been with this church pantry, I’ll jump in to help with one-off opportunities that come up like public art projects.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It has expanded my horizons and made me more empathetic to my neighbors. Once, I was making breakfast through the Night Ministry at an overnight emergency shelter for kids. One morning, somebody’s alarm was that Lion King song, “Hakuna Matata,” and all the kids started singing. It was moving. Seeing the resiliency of people gives me hope.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
It doesn’t have to be a major commitment, especially not at first. There’s so much need. And you probably can offer more than you think, whether it’s construction or tutoring. What’s really great is when people figure out what needs to be done and just jump in.
For many years, Chicago Cares did a Servathon. They brought thousands of volunteers downtown for a rally before sending them to assigned locations. In the course of a five-hour day, an entire school could be repainted or a park replanted. Groups got so much done, and it saved the city millions of dollars.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I hope I can encourage people to join Chicago Cares or do whatever volunteering they want, because it’s so enriching. Sometimes, I think I get more than I give.
There’s a lot of need out there, and it doesn’t take a lot to help. One of the fun things in life is putting together little moments like an interaction with someone at the grocery store or someone saying something funny to you walking down the street. When I’m volunteering, and someone teaches me that you shouldn’t put the onions in the potatoes because the gases will rot them, it makes my day. If you extend yourself, you never know what wonderful little moment will happen.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Catherine? Find local volunteer opportunities.