Great Reward from Unexpected Change

November 18, 2018

Zuri Thompson, AmeriCorps VISTA, La Casa Norte

I began my VISTA year of service at the beginning of February and so far there has yet to be a dull moment! I have an extensive background working with non-profit programs in the city of Chicago, but I am new to the work on the Northwest side where my organization is located. I am gaining such valuable insight into how different communities respond to the issue of hunger and learning best practices that can be duplicated in other communities as I continue this work in the years to come.

La Casa Norte is a non-profit organization headquartered in Humboldt Park that serves youth and families confronting homelessness. Many of the agency’s clients are food insecure so La Casa Norte works to address hunger issues through different initiatives, including founding the Northwest Food Partners Network (NFPN) in 2009. The network was created to support and align the work of small emergency food providers who work in a close geographical area on Chicago’s Northwest Side and is a member of the Hunger Free Community Network.

Over the years, the NFPN has developed into a network of non-profits and community organizations that run food pantries, free hot meal programs, and produce mobile sites as well as farmers’ markets, health centers, nutrition educators, social entrepreneurs, urban agriculturists and food justice advocates. La Casa Norte organizes all of the efforts of the NFPN and has ensured its tenure to date.

The network meets at a different member site every month so members can offer support to each other’s programs through shared resources, helpful feedback, and participation in community engagement and fundraising opportunities. Members have fairly limited capacities and resources to carry out the critical end-hunger work they are doing but are extremely dedicated to the mission. My primary responsibility as a VISTA has been to coordinate the NFPN and lead the group through updating the previous strategic plan to consider the capacity of the members and the rapidly changing demographics of the neighborhoods where the various programs operate. With help from the network members, La Casa Norte leadership, and a planning consultant, I was able to guide the development of a strategic plan that grows membership and further supports efforts to end hunger in these communities.

I joined La Casa Norte at a time of transition for both the organization and the NFPN which I believe has made my service more meaningful. Within my first 2 months of service my supervisor resigned from her position, and although I was able to work very closely with her while she was here and she did her best to set me up for long-term success, I essentially had to step into a leadership role for the NFPN almost immediately. I started just a week before the NFPN met to update the strategic plan and the initial consultant hired to lead the process withdrew from the project for family reasons but thankfully I had worked with an awesome consultant in the past who was available to take on the project and helped lead it to completion. In addition, La Casa Norte is in the home stretch of completing the construction of a multi-million dollar new facility that will house all staff and programs as well as affordable housing units for clients, so in the meantime we are working in close quarters at a temporary location. All of this change has been interesting to navigate but with a great deal of support from everyone involved, I have been able to learn so much about La Casa Norte, the member agencies of the NFPN, and myself.