It started with a phone call from, of all people, a CPA.
He had heard a radio ad for an Oakbrook Terrace-based company called Precision Payroll of America, LLC, and he wondered if the company's president and CEO, Tom Sodeika, was interested in helping out a fledgling community center that was striving to make positive changes in Chicago's Austin neighborhood.
If you goWhat: Teach2Fish Benefit Dinner
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 23
Where: Sheraton Lisle Hotel, 3000 Warrenville Road
Sodeika didn't know it at the time, but the call would lead to a meeting with a pastor, the Rev. Curtis Rodgers, who he now calls "one of the most interesting men I've ever met in my life."
Since that initial call, Sodeika says he's been working to help Rodgers continue his efforts to keep the Chetwyn Rodgers Drive Development Center afloat and to continue its mission to empower West Side residents to become economically self-sufficient and revitalize their neighborhood.
It's a difficult challenge that became even tougher about two years ago when the center lost virtually all its state and city funding. To help offset that loss, Sodeika is asking DuPage County residents to participate in a fundraising event next week in Lisle that, if all goes well, could generate roughly $25,000 -- enough to keep the center open for at least another year.
The Chetwyn Rodgers Drive Development Center opened eight years ago in a former manufacturing plant at Cicero Avenue and Madison Street that had fallen into disrepair and been taken over by gang members. Folks in the neighborhood called it "Death Row."
Then the Rev. Rodgers showed up with a dream of converting Death Row into a lifeline for the community, a place where residents could find help to get off welfare and into the workforce.
Sodeika says he was drawn to the quest at least partially because he lived in Cicero -- just 1½ miles from the site -- until his family moved to Arlington Heights when he was in sixth grade.
Over the years, the center, the Rev. Rodgers and a group of volunteers literally have helped hundreds of people "move from welfare, dependence and helplessness to work, hope and joy," he says.
"The Chetwyn Rodgers Drive Development Committee's vision and mission is to break the cycle of poverty and dependency that is at the core of a great spiritual disconnect by empowering people to become economically self-sufficient through entrepreneurship, job training and job skills development, through a collaboration between church, business, residents, city, state, federal, philanthropic and social service providers," the group's website says. To do all that, the center needs money.
"I found it sadly ironic," Sodeika says, "that a place that was doing so much good would lose its funding."
When he tried to find other revenue sources, he discovered few such outlets exist for those without "connections."
So it became natural that his company would adopt the center as a cause worth fighting for. At Christmastime, for example, Precision Payroll provides coats, hats and other clothing for many of those served by the center.
On Wednesday, the suburban company that provides payroll tax and human resources services for small- to mid-sized companies, will take a new approach to helping.
That's the evening Sodeika will play host to the Teach2Fish Benefit Dinner at the Sheraton Lisle Hotel, 3000 Warrenville Road.
The event takes its name from the familiar saying, "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for one day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."
Tickets are $100 and, thanks to support from business sponsors, all proceeds will go directly to the center.
The benefit, which runs from 6:30 to 9 p.m., will include dinner, "a little singing" and the chance to rub elbows with a couple former athletes, including David Tyree, the New York Giants wide receiver who made a crucial catch in the 2008 Super Bowl, and Ray McElroy, a former member of the Chicago Bears and once the team's chaplain. If the fundraiser is as successful as Sodeika hopes, it will generate enough cash to keep the center open for at least another year and perhaps allow for the addition of some new computers to assist jobseekers.
"We want to raise awareness and get money to help Pastor Rodgers revitalize that community from the inside out," he says. "We want it to someday look like downtown Oak Park."