WEST RIDGE — Driven by the desire to care for their neighbors in a difficult time, West Ridge volunteers worked all summer to build and decorate free mini-pantries all around the neighborhood.
They installed nine pantries with free, non-perishable goods throughout the streets of West Ridge since the last week of August, primarily on residential streets where residents offered to host. Three more are on the way, according to Halle Quezada, a West Ridge resident who helped start the volunteer group West Ridge Community Response Team.
The team was founded in March 2020, and has conducted outreach programs, assisted in mutual aid and connected residents to relevant agencies.
The pantries project specifically was aimed at addressing the community’s concern over summer violence and avoiding a “fear-based response,” Quezada said. She added that in trying to allow the community to heal, neighbors’ economic and health needs must be met.
“Part of that work is civic education and the other part is leading by example and caring for each other in a coordinated and sustainable way,” Quezada, a CPS teacher, said.
Another element of the project was to engage kids and teens in the work.
“This project centers youth in restorative practice and food justice work for and with our community,” Quezada said. “The goal was to build relationships while providing a real service that reinforces who we are — neighbors who care about and for each other.”
Natan Hatcher, a middle schooler from West Ridge, was one of the young volunteers who worked on the pantries project after his mom saw the work being advertised on Facebook.
Hatcher said he learned new skills like measuring, drilling and sawing while volunteering. And he enjoyed making new friends while helping out a good cause.
“Hopefully the pantries will make food insecurity less of a problem around the neighborhood,” Hatcher said. “I know it can be hard to find places to find food for free or cheaper prices, so I think it’s helpful that there’s multiple places to pick up food.”
Mueze Bawany is another CPS teacher who lives in West Ridge who worked on the project. Bawany is open in discussing his childhood of growing up poor in the West Ridge neighborhood and how those experiences have launched him into a world of activism and mutual aid coordination.
“That neighborhood knows the struggles of trying to make it in America,” said Bawany in a nod to the large population of immigrant families in West Ridge. “We understand as a community what struggle is and we know what it means to provide a meal.”
So far, both Bawany and Quezada said they’re getting good feedback from the neighborhood in response to the pantries.
“A lot of people don’t think these things are effective, they say, ‘Oh, they’re cute.'” Bawany said. “But you walk by and things are gone. You notice that these pantries are being used and taken care of.”
Quezada said she hopes similar projects help to foster stronger connections between neighbors.
“It’s not a system of the haves giving to the have-nots, but an acknowledgement that anyone could be in need of help at any time and knowing we have neighbors that will come to help,” Quezada said.
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