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updated: 6/10/2014 1:37 PM

How Hinsdale single mom's food pantry visit led to college degree

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  • While willing to talk about the tough times that led her to a food pantry, mom and new college graduate Ellen Tucker shares a happy moment with daughters Sydney, 14, and Emma, 11, who has life-threatening disabilities.

       While willing to talk about the tough times that led her to a food pantry, mom and new college graduate Ellen Tucker shares a happy moment with daughters Sydney, 14, and Emma, 11, who has life-threatening disabilities.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Recalling how her visit to a mobile food pantry helped with her goal to pursue college degrees and a new career, Ellen Tucker, right, shares a laugh with Donna Lake of the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

       Recalling how her visit to a mobile food pantry helped with her goal to pursue college degrees and a new career, Ellen Tucker, right, shares a laugh with Donna Lake of the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • New University of Phoenix graduate Ellen Tucker accepts a last-second tassel adjustment from fellow graduate Niqua Wilbon at Saturday's commencement in Hoffman Estates.

       New University of Phoenix graduate Ellen Tucker accepts a last-second tassel adjustment from fellow graduate Niqua Wilbon at Saturday's commencement in Hoffman Estates.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Waiting in line with other University of Phoenix graduates Saturday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ellen Tucker of Hinsdale explains how she went to a food pantry in 2011 and came home with a meal, a mentor and the support that now has her well on her way to a goal of opening a day care center for children with special needs.

       Waiting in line with other University of Phoenix graduates Saturday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ellen Tucker of Hinsdale explains how she went to a food pantry in 2011 and came home with a meal, a mentor and the support that now has her well on her way to a goal of opening a day care center for children with special needs.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Video: From food pantry to graduation

 
 

Motivated by concern for her two daughters, one with life-threatening special needs, an embarrassed Ellen Tucker swallowed her pride and visited the mobile food pantry in Hinsdale in November 2011.

Tucker's simple search for a meal developed into a support system of people who helped propel the 45-year-old mom to Saturday's University of Phoenix graduation ceremony at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, where she picked up her bachelor's degree on her path to a graduate degree and her goal of opening a day-care center for children with special needs.

"I'm in a much better place now than when I met them," Tucker says of the people she connected with through that trip to the pantry.

"She's got determination. She's got perseverance. She's got the goal in her eyes and she will do it, baby," says Sue Nibeck, 76, a longtime volunteer with HSC Family Services. Nibeck became Tucker's parenting mentor through the not-for-profit charity serving southeastern DuPage County.

Spotting Tucker standing at the back of the line at the mobile food pantry operated by HSC and the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a volunteer approached to see if the mom had a card allowing parents of children with disabilities to move to the front.

Tucker didn't wait for the pantry worker's spiel.

"I said, 'OK, I'll volunteer,'" remembers Tucker, who figured that would alleviate her guilt about the handout. "And she said, 'No, we want to help you.'"

Enrolled in HSC's parent-mentoring program, Tucker and Nibeck quickly moved beyond motherhood tips.

"We got together and talked for probably 2 hours, and I found out exactly where her needs were," Nibeck remembers. "She's a wonderful mother. Parent mentoring isn't what I helped her with. I was her cheerleader."

A divorced mom working three jobs before landing a full-time job with a collection agency in Naperville, Tucker moved from a townhouse into a two-bedroom apartment in Hinsdale to save money.

She already had faced bigger obstacles. The family was living in Westmont when a virus damaged the heart of her younger daughter, Emma, after her second birthday.

The mom remembers the girl receiving CPR for 36 minutes, dire meetings with a chaplain and the agonizing wait for a transplant heart.

"Nine days we waited, nine days," Tucker says. "They called me on April Fool's evening."

The new heart saved Emma's life, but the damage already done left the girl, now 11, with severe disabilities. Unable to walk, Emma has the vocabulary of a toddler. She makes a kissing sound to say yes and show her affection for her mom and big sister, Sydney, 14.

The sisters share a bedroom, and Sydney has become such a loving sibling and caretaker that she wants to become a special-education teacher.

"She adores her sister. They're inseparable," Tucker says, as Emma responds to the conversation by leaning toward her mom and renewing her kissing sounds. "I'm pretty high on that list, too."

Already taking online classes required for her MBA, Tucker celebrated her bachelor's degree the same week Sydney graduated from eighth grade.

Tucker, who kept up with her schooling even after a heart attack two years ago, credits her trip to the food pantry for helping make it all possible.

"It just led to all these other opportunities," she says.

"You're an inspiration for all these other people who might be in that position and haven't gone to a food pantry yet," Donna Lake, director of communications for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, tells Tucker.

"DuPage County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, but the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs now outnumbers the people living in poverty in the city of Chicago."

Of the 83,830 DuPage County residents considered "food insecure," more than half don't qualify for federal assistance and need to rely on programs such as food pantries, according to 2014 statistics compiled by the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

Last year, the food bank distributed more than 8 million meals in DuPage County. Many of the 797,090 "food insecure" Cook County residents live in the suburbs. The number of such suburban residents also has increased in the counties of Lake (68,650), Kane (50,050) and McHenry (27,210).

"Hunger is in every community, sometimes on every block," Lake says.

Since Hinsdale is a suburb known for being affluent, Nibeck says the Hinsdale Community Service goes by HCS now just to avoid people saying, "Who in Hinsdale needs help?"

"Sometimes I have to step in the back to avoid someone who might be embarrassed to see me," Nibeck says of her work at the food pantry.

Tucker, who shares parenting duties and expenses with her former husband, now is in a relationship with a man who draws enthusiastic approval from Nibeck, who says that by the time the mentoring program ended, they had become "dearest and most-intimate friends."

"I think she is such an awesome woman," Nibeck says. "I truly am in awe."

Tucker says the help she got will someday have her in a position to open her day-care center for children with special needs, so that she can provide others with help that can turn around lives.

The family's journey has made an impact on Sydney, who will start high school in the fall.

As her mother and Lake engage in friendly chattering after explaining details about poverty and the value of food banks and mentoring programs, the fearless teen runs into the parking lot to assert one more bold point that she worries might not make this story.

"Please don't say we are poor," Sydney says. "We don't have everything we want, but we aren't poor. We have everything we need, and each other."

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