The blackboard behind the cash register says it all: “Dine Well. Do Good.”
Looking across the brightly lit, packed dining room at Inspiration Kitchens in Uptown, it could be just another casual, American-eclectic restaurant on a Wednesday afternoon. The wait staff is bustling, the customers are smiling, the turkey, bacon and avocado wrap is tantalizing. But that blackboard serves as a reminder that this isn’t just another restaurant: It’s a catalyst for change. Most of the men and women working here have been homeless at one point in time.
“The idea is that working is the best preparation for working,” said Margaret Haywood, director of training and social enterprise for the non-profit Inspiration Corporation.
During a 13-week training program, men and women learn about basic culinary skills and concepts, reading and converting recipes, following and taking direction, sanitation and safety, restaurant service and more. It’s also an upbeat environment for the public to enjoy a delicious breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, whether it’s berries and cream French toast, spinach and artichoke mac and cheese or crab-stuffed tilapia. It’s also remarkably affordable, with menu items ranging from $5 to $9.
Inspiration Kitchens is one of two restaurants serving the general public run by Inspiration Corporation (the other is in Garfield Park), a non-profit organization that also provides food, support services, job training, housing and more to the homeless.
“Part of our philosophy from the beginning is we’re not here to just help enable people in life on the street,” said Haywood. “Everybody has to have a plan for moving forward.”
It all started in 1989, with a red wagon. That’s when Lisa Nigro, a former Chicago police officer, borrowed her nephew’s Radio Flyer wagon, filled it with sandwiches and coffee and began walking around Uptown, offering sustenance and dignity to homeless men and women she encountered. Over time, her efforts expanded into a mobile food truck and, in 2000, The Inspiration Café opened in Uptown, providing a restaurant-like atmosphere in which volunteers serve meals to the homeless. The goal was to differentiate the environment from the many drab area soup kitchens and to provide a bright, relaxing environment to show respect and dignity for homeless diners.
In 2005, Inspiration Kitchens opened to the public as a training ground for those in need and an inexpensive café for the public. Since its beginning, the program has trained more than 500 men and women, and 300 have gone on to get jobs at area restaurants, including Mastro’s Steakhouse, Central Street Café in Evanston and Sodexo, a company providing food services for some area universities and businesses.
Since her red-wagon beginnings, Nigro has been honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2010, and in January 2011 by People Magazine in “Heroes Among Us.”
As Haywood sits at a counter by the window, she chats candidly with servers, such as Ann Enloe. Years ago, Enloe lost her job and became homeless. She was getting help from Sarah’s Circle, a non-profit serving women who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. That’s where she heard about the Inspiration Kitchens training program. She completed the training and was hired as a server. In the process, she’s also been able to afford her own apartment and rediscover the genuine grin she flashes at each of her customers.
Inspiration Kitchens is about far more than a job, said Haywood. It’s a way to bring back confidence, a sense of accomplishment, a support network and more to people who truly need the help.
“The most important thing about it is how much people’s self worth is tied to working,” she says. “Helping people get back to work has a ripple effect.”
The psychologist’s perspective: Jobs help bring healing for homeless
In addition to helping give self-worth and a supportive environment to the homeless, having a job at a place like Inspiration Kitchens can help provide them a sense of belonging and security, said Dr. Sung Jin Cho, clinical psychologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital.
“We get meaning and purpose from our jobs,” he said. “It gives us something to do every day, something to look forward to and know that it will be there day in and out. Almost like a sense of safety.”
In addition, Cho said employment provides a place to meet new friends, discuss problems at home or work and allows for a personal sense of achievement.
If you’re interested in contributing to the mission of Inspiration Kitchens, you can do so by simply enjoying a meal at the restaurant (The Uptown location is at 4715 N Sheridan Road; the Garfield Park location is at 3504 W. Lake Street) or by making a donation on their website here.