In three years as CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva, Pete Schaefer never really came close to reaching his ultimate goal.
Though many would say eradicating hunger is a noble but impossible task, Schaefer still believes there is no major obstacle to that task even as he steps away from his leadership role.
"We're living in Illinois," Schaefer said. "It's one of the richest states in one of the richest countries in the world. There's not a shortage of money here. There's not a shortage of food here. The secret ingredient is more volunteers, more donations and getting more people involved. There's no real hard thing here. Hunger is solvable. We have the whole infrastructure ready."
Schaefer played a large role in strengthening that infrastructure. When he came on board as CEO in 2011, the not-for-profit began its move from a small facility in St. Charles to a new headquarters in Geneva. The transition eliminated backups at distribution docks, waiting lines at weigh stations and a major lack of freezer and storage space at the old facility.
The food bank no longer had to turn away donations because it had no place to store them. As a result, the food bank is now on track to distribute 50 million pounds of food this year, 10 million more than it was capable of before Schaefer came on board. It also counted 14,000 volunteers last year logging more than 100,000 hours to help the cause.
Schaefer said the food bank is helping more people than ever, but in a down economy with fewer well-paying jobs, there are still hungry people not getting the sustenance they need.
"I was hoping to maybe be able to put this food bank out of business during my tenure, but the reality is there's a lot of our neighbors out there still suffering," Schaefer said. "After you pay the car payment, the rent payment and other bills what's left over is what people are using for food now. And sometimes there's not enough left over."
The numbers speak to that problem. Only one year into Schaefer's tenure as CEO, about 40 percent of organizations clients were employed but still needed help putting food on the table.
With problems still to address, Schaefer isn't totally stepping away from the food bank. He will serve in an emeritus role on the food bank's board of directors and remain in his current role into a new CEO is named. After that, Schaefer will return to his wife's communications firm for his day job.
"If I did leave a cheat sheet for the next CEO, it would say, 'Hire smart people, and get out of the way,'" Schaefer said. "I am sad to go, and it will create a huge hole in my life. But I don't look at it as leaving something behind. I'm going to something.
"I'm not the kind of person who goes to class reunions and stuff. I don't look backward."