11 months, thousands of meals: Palatine woman helps others during pandemic
Cathie Johnson grew up knowing what it's like to struggle with food insecurity, so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she felt compelled to take action.
"I thought, 'There's elderly people. There's veterans. There's Section 8 (low-income housing) people that can't go to the store. They can't go do things.' That kind of motivated me," the Palatine resident said. "I've been lucky to move beyond my childhood experience, and I decided at that point that something had to be done."
She reached out to two friends in April and together they gathered a small group of volunteers. In the last 11 months, the initiative has grown into an organized group called "People Helping People of Palatine" that has served thousands of hot meals, provided 75 grocery bags and more than 100 meal kits, and distributed 185 water bottle care kits to people in need including seniors, veterans, families of local students, homeless residents and other community members. The group also has collaborated with youth groups and local neighborhoods for food drives and special projects.
Their latest initiative is a food drive throughout March with drop-off sites at 12 businesses in Palatine.
The group has 30 to 35 active volunteers and is run by Johnson via a private Facebook group with about 220 members. "It's a grassroots kind of thing," said Johnson, who works from home and has converted her garage into food storage. "Our volunteers do everything."
That includes donating groceries, cooking meals and delivering food. Any extra food is donated to local pantries. "If it comes here and we can't use it, we will pay it forward to someone who can," Johnson said.
Johnson was a recipient of a community volunteer award from the Palatine Area Chamber of Commerce in December. Her friend Deb Gabriel of Palatine, who nominated her for the award, said Johnson embodies the spirit of volunteerism.
"You think, 'Oh, we live in the suburbs, there's a safety net for this.' And she found out there isn't a safety net," said Gabriel, who's volunteered by cooking for the group. "So she set out to be that support."
In October, the group started pitching in to help the Palatine nonprofit Journeys -- The Road Home by delivering meals kits and hot meals for clients of its PADS homeless shelter. Clients are currently housed in motels and hotels because of the pandemic. The group also delivered water bottle care kits to the nonprofit.
Several volunteers, including Johnson, spent Christmas Day delivering more than 185 hot meals to a variety of recipients. The effort was sponsored by Realtor Jason Stallard of The Stallard Group with help from Cook, Cork & Fork in Palatine, which donated its space and organized the cooking.
"They are awesome," Heidi Meier, Journeys volunteer coordinator, said of Johnson and the other volunteers. "I just think they are really passionate people to help those in the community that need it. Cathie is always looking for ways to do stuff for our clients, and for ways to help."
People Helping People of Palatine also forged connections with social workers from Palatine Township School District 15 and Palatine-Schaumburg Townships High School District 211, delivering grocery bags for school families in need.
The help has been wonderful, said Deana Havens, a social worker at Palatine High School. "(Johnson) is a community member who has the best interest of our students and families, and does what she can to do her part," Havens said.
So how long will the group keep going? "We will keep it going as long as there is a need and as long as we have the support," Johnson said.
"If we can find the time and the funds to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and become something bigger, then we can be as big as it can be. It's just a matter of walking that path."
Desired items: Boxed pasta, microwaveable rice pouches, canned tuna and chicken, boxed instant oatmeal, cereal, pancake mix, peanut butter, cereal, jelly, canned fruit, canned vegetables, microwaveable mac and cheese cups, canned meals (e.g., SpaghettiOs), non-condensed canned soup, snacks (granola, Goldfish, crackers, fruit snacks).
Drop off locations: Brush Salon, 109 W. Slade St.; Foxglove Cottage, 19 N. Brockway St.; Palatine Bank & Trust, 110 W. Palatine Road; Cook, Cork & Fork, 34 W. Palatine Road; JL's Pizza & Sports Bar, 19 N. Bothwell St.; Palatine Vision Center, 456 W. Northwest Hwy.; Cutting Edge, 311 S. Rohlwing Road; Monson Jewelers, 25 N. Brockway St.; Shoppe The Mill, 37 W. Slade St.; Edward Jones -- Deb Gabriel, 334 E. Colfax St.; Nellie's 180 N. Smith St.; Sweet C's Barkey, 10 N. Bothwell St.
Information: (847) 533-3321, firstname.lastname@example.org.