From an unlikely spot, Vernon Hills woman helps those in need with food pantry
The unlikely headquarters of an enduring weekly source of fresh food, household supplies and hope for as many as 200 families is tucked away in a comfortable neighborhood of townhouses in Vernon Hills.
With rare exception, Sue Gandhi long ago stopped parking the family car in the garage. The space had become filled with food, crates, shelving, cabinets, refrigerators and other items for Sue's Pantry.
Those in need always have known where to find her. But for most of the 12 years she has operated out of the garage, Gandhi kept a low profile, wary of attracting attention that could compromise her mission.
That changed about a year ago as word of her unwavering dedication and inspiring effort was chronicled in a local news report. A feature on NBC Nightly News followed and so did a wave of donations.
The idea is to make a difference in people's lives and help them navigate daily struggles, she says.
Depending on the circumstance, Gandhi provides cleaning products, supplies such as toiletries or diapers, and even money to pay for rent, a utility bill or car repair so the recipient can use their meager resources elsewhere.
She said she uses proceeds from a GoFundMe page to buy things and help with bills but doesn't take expenses.
"I want people to understand this is not a handout. It's a hand up," Gandhi said in a village-produced YouTube video.
"It doesn't just relate to food. There are so many layers. We have PTSD, we have anxiety, we have depression," she added.
Volunteers and others describe Gandhi as an angel.
"No. I just try to make a difference," she explained. "That's all I need to know -- a phone number and what do you need?"
Gandhi has a long-standing practice of helping where needed and her actions and soothing demeanor inspire others.
"You won't meet a more selfless individual than Sue Gandhi," said Vernon Hills village Trustee Craig Takaoka. He came upon Sue's Pantry on Facebook by chance and arranged a visit accompanied by Mayor Roger Byrne.
"She completely inspired me and humbled me," said Takaoka. "It's not just me," he added.
After the visit, Takaoka nominated her for the village's Outstanding Citizen Award. Presented last November, the award is in appreciation for Gandhi's "outstanding display of community caretaking."
"Sue has the mission of 'lending a helping hand' to any person in need and has been a steady resource to single mothers, struggling families (and) refugees, by not only providing necessities for survival, but respect and dignity," the award reads.
Gandhi moved to the Vernon Hills neighborhood when it was new construction in 1998. She said she long had volunteered at soup kitchens and shelters and would drive to Chicago to feed the homeless.
"We have a moral obligation to help our fellow man no matter who they might be," Gandhi said.
Sue's Pantry was created after she and her husband, Hasu, lost corporate jobs during the Great Recession.
"We decided not to go back to work," she said. A second vehicle and restaurant meals, among other things, were cut.
"I had some jewelry, so I sold that to raise funds to do this," she said. "I also did some cooking classes at home. Basically, it was cutting our expenses. It was pretty bare bones."
Initial efforts were directed to those affected by flooding in the Round Lake area.
"I would always say to anybody who came (if) a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker, anyone at all who needs help, give them my number," Gandhi said.
The pantry took shape when Debbie Fritz, a Waukegan resident and painter by trade, did some work at the Gandhi home. First, she painted the interior and later brought and installed cabinets and refrigerators from other jobs.
"From the moment I met her, she's been a loving caring person," said Fritz. "Sue always made me feel good and made me want to be better."
Fritz was among several volunteers last week filling her vehicle with supplies to deliver to families in her area.
So was Hainesville resident Pam Cecil, whose family used the pantry for a time last year after her husband lost his job. After the family found its footing, Pam became a volunteer for Sue's Pantry, distributing supplies to residents in her area.
"It just happened. I didn't say I was going to feed 45 families," she said "It's been word-of-mouth -- somebody knows somebody."
Like others, Cecil said she has been inspired by Gandhi.
"She is the most amazing, selfless woman I know," Cecil said. "She'll give you the shirt off her back even if she doesn't have another one to put on."