Lyle Allen

Transcript of Lyle Allen
Interviewee: Lyle Allen
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: Care for Real, 5334 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL
Date: July 3, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Total Time: 22:35 minutes

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is July 3, 2014. This is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society (EHS) interviewing Lyle Allen, Director of Care for Real at his office. Let me say thank you very much for allowing EHS to come to interview you Lyle.

LA: Thank you Dorothy. It’s an honor to be part of this project and I’m so glad you reached out to us.

DN: I’d like to start off by asking you a little bit about Care for Real. How did it start and how has it progressed to where it is today?

LA: Sure. Well, Care for Real has been serving the greater Edgewater community for over forty years. We provide free programs and services to our neighbors in need. That includes food distribution five times a week, deliveries to the home bound, a clothing closet, a pet pantry, case management referrals and an employment resource center to help our clients self-stabilize and get back on their feet. These are busy times for us. Prior to 2007, we served about 10,000 annually. But when the economy collapsed and so many people found themselves unemployed or underemployed, our numbers began to sky rocket. And by the close of 2013 we served some 71,000. As we work into 2014 and SNAP benefits [food stamps] have been cut, people are still struggling with employment issues. As Chicagoans, we all know we suffered through a long, brutal Chicago winter. Our numbers continue to increase.


DN: Now I understand Care for Real started as an outgrowth of E.C.R.A. Could you explain a little bit about that?

LA: It did. The formation of Care for Real is an interesting one. And I have a few notes here. I hope you don’t mind if I read from them.

DN: Oh, certainly not.

LA: Care for Real was established in 1970. It was created by members of the Edgewater Community Religious Association, known as E.C.R.A. They wanted to provide emergency help to victims of fires in the Kenmore-Winthrop corridor between Foster and Devon. Because the Edgewater Community Council, known as E.C.C., had the necessary infrastructure, E.C.R.A. asked that organization to administer Care for Real as an autonomous program to provide a short term solution to a specific problem. However, it soon became aware in Edgewater there was a growing need for an ongoing safety net. Today Care for Real, which became an independent, not-for-profit corporation in 2010, is that safety net for the entire community.

DN: I also understand that initially, and for many years, Care for Real was supported by the entire community until the numbers became so large that it became necessary to reach out for funding in other directions?


LA: Unfortunately it is. Still the support we receive throughout the community is extraordinary. We are a jewel of the Edgewater neighborhood and we couldn’t exist without the foundation of support we receive from our neighbors. But unfortunately because the level of need has increased so significantly, especially in the past couple of years, the need to expand our outreach has been necessary. So throughout the entire Chicago land area, we’re pleased to see support coming from all different sorts of supporters and donors.

DN: I know that Care for Real welcomes anybody that walks in the door; anybody that’s in need. But I’m wondering in terms of immigrants and refugees, how significant a population is that in terms of your clients?

LA: It’s a significant one and again it gets back to the Edgewater community itself, because the fabric of our neighborhood is one that it embraces everyone, just like Care for Real. The percentage of immigrants and refugees that come through our doors seeking support is roughly within thirty to thirty five percent overall group of those seeking support from our free programs and services.


DN: Do immigrants and refugees, in your opinion, have different needs from your other clients?

LA: Well they do. I think certainly coming to the States for the first time would be a daunting experience, but especially for the immigrants and the refugees that are turning to Care for Real for support, it can be tough.

DN: What do you think the first problem that refugees face when they come here?


LA: Well I think that initially, it’s language barriers. And we see that here. Many of these clients coming to us honestly can’t speak a lick of English. And we tried to ensure that our facility still provides a welcoming experience for those immigrants and refugees the very first time they come to us. Initially when a client comes to Care for Real, all are required to fill out a certain amount of paperwork. Because we know so many of them face those language barriers, including reading materials, the information that we require all clients to fill out has been translated into about ten different languages. Now we’re pleased to have a volunteer base of over two hundred and fifty folks that are regular, standard volunteers here for us. And honestly with a staff of just three full timers and two part timers, Care for Real could never exist without our volunteers. We truly live and die by them.

DN: Do many of your volunteers come from the Edgewater community, would you say?

LA: Many of them are, and again it heartens back to the support we see from the community, not only through monetary donations and food drives, but actually coming here and working at Care for Real, and helping us with the thousands of needs that we have here as an organization to make sure it runs efficiently.


DN: You said that language would be the first problem that a refugee or an immigrant might face when they come here. Would there be others that you can think of that Care for Real responds to?

LA: There are, and might I add one other language barrier item? It’s besides having the actual information in a language that they can read and fill out on their own. That’s so important to an immigrant or a refugee. It again provides that that welcoming initial experience for someone; to make them feel as comfortable as possible here. Now on top of that, with our volunteers, we have many that speak different languages. And the first time a client comes here, they are required to sit down with one of our case managers. And many of those case managers again, we are blessed because they speak a number of those languages. So as a client is interviewed, we’re actually able to do that in their own language; make that immediate connection. And it goes so far with helping us insure we are providing the highest level of client service to these folks. And it makes them feel a little bit better about coming through our doors.


DN: I think it also makes them feel they are being treated with respect and dignity that this American agency would reach out to them in their own language and meet them where they are instead of forcing people to come immediately and cross that bridge to everything new here.

LA: I would agree with you 100%. The initial contact you meet with anybody in a social service agency is crucial to furthering and building trust with that client. And to have that relationship with these immigrants and refugees is imperative to maintaining a successful partnership and relationship with them.

DN: Now once you meet the immediate needs of a refugee, such as clothing or food, what are some of the other needs that you see that exist that Care for Real can respond to?


LA: There are so many. To review our food distribution program just a little bit and why it makes Care for Real so special in the Chicago land area is the way that we make food available to our clients. Care for Real has established what we call a client choice model. And on a very busy pantry day, when we have probably thirty or forty volunteers here helping us out within a very busy food distribution time, clients are allowed to come through the process and pick and choose the items that will make the best difference to them when they take that home. You know, we want to make sure that the food coming out here is getting back into households and truly being used. We offer monthly pantry items, as well as bread and baked goods, fresh produce and literally just tons of donated products that not only help our regular clients, but also speak to the immigrant and refugee population in a very personal way. We’re actually able to provide food that they used to eat when they lived in their own homes. And to see the reaction and see the connection that they make when they come through our lines is fantastic. It helps makes Care for Real so special because I don’t know another agency that provides that kind of level to such a diverse population.


In addition to the food, clothing is always needed. Many of the folks who come here are from Asia and Africa. Quite often they land here at the end of fall, towards the beginning of the fall and winter season, and let’s face it; we all know what a Chicago winter is like. For someone who is coming from a country that’s never experienced cold or freezing temperatures, it again is completely unique to them. And they don’t know how to survive and live safely through this. So not only does Care for Real provide clothing and make sure folks are clothed, but we really try to help them; that immigrant and refugee population to make sure they receive the warm clothing that they’ve never ever had to have before and live safely through the long harsh winter here.


DN: What other kinds of things do you do that can help bridge that gap between a cultural understanding that may be non-industrial or… I’m thinking for example of the hill tribes or little villagers – not little villagers – the little villages that many of these people come from to this huge urban setting. So in what other ways does Care for Real respond to that gap?

LA: That’s a great question. We again see an upsurge in immigrant and refugee populations coming to us beginning around October. And on certain days of the week, when Care for Real is not providing food or clothing, we open our doors to special workshops and training events. We partner with the Pan-African Association and Red Cross. And throughout the course of the day we’ll have workshops that are broken down by language, speaking to these folks in their own language and helping to ensure that they are self-stabilizing in the city. That includes everything from clothing, which I mentioned earlier, to receiving foods that they had in their own home land, to the very basic things of just living in the States, like how to run a gas stove, and making sure you don’t leave it on, and you’re living safely in your own space, to how to cook corkscrew pasta, which looks entirely alien to them – nothing that they’ve ever seen. Those kinds of things are just so important to what we do here. And I will tell you that those days when we offer that here in our facility are especially inspiring ones.


DN: What about emotional needs of the immigrants or the refugees; the traumas that they’ve been through, and their fears and their stresses which are a little bit different than an immigrant? Does Care for Real help in any way or refer them to social services for that?

LA: We do. Our case management program is just imperative to that. Part of our mission is to ensure that anyone that comes through our doors doesn’t leave here needing something. The room we’re in now is an office space. It’s the only enclosed space in our entire operation. But this is the location where our case managers work out of. And when… especially those refugees and immigrants that are facing so many problems, whether it’s social, health, education, or a variety of other needs, they’re able to sit here, again with someone who speaks their own language. And by working with them we’re able to identify what those problems are and ensure that when they leave they at least know where to go to get that next level of support.


DN: I think that I’ve noticed some people around here that seem to regard Care for Real as their second home. Some of the immigrants and refugees who have been here for maybe more than ten years seem to feel that this is a special place for them and come on a regular basis even though they may not need the specific services any more. Why do you think that is?

LA: Well, I think it speaks to what is so special about this organization. On a personal note, I will tell you it’s the very best thing that I find about leading Care for Real and why I’m so pleased to be part of such an important and well loved not-for-profit that I’ve never seen exist in my own time. When you’re here on a busy day, and gosh it is crazy here. But the team and the spirit of everyone who comes through our doors, whether it’s volunteers, clients, my board members, our staff; we’re all here for the same reason. And I think that I share this with everyone when I say that not only is it professionally fulfilling, but it’s especially personally fulfilling. To know that you go home every day and know you’ve made a difference in the life of someone.

DN: That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. I’d like to just go back for a minute. We’ve covered language food, clothing, emotional support, directing people to services. What about employment? I know Care for Real reaches out in that manner too.


LA: About two years ago we launched an employment resource center that ultimately helps clients self stabilize and get back on their feet. Since launching that problem we’ve helped assist well over six hundred fifty individuals, many of them represented from the refugee and immigrant population. Now mind you, many of these folks that are coming to us are highly polished processionals in their own country. They’re doctors, lawyers, and everything else in between. So they just need that little bit of an extension to help make a connection so they get back on their feet.

The program is just an amazing one. Again it’s staffed by just wonderful volunteers; again many of those that speak in the own language of those coming to us. And I’ll tell you that the first time that someone comes through here, we have them sit down initially with one of our corporate retired professional volunteers. Now these folks are very grandmotherly and grandfatherly are great and are super sweet, but also I‘ll tell you, they’re tough as nails. And when someone comes in, they’ll help them rewrite their resume. They’ll help rewrite cover letters. Once they’re through with that process and they’re feeling comfortable with that, we’ll have them sit down with another group and we do mock interviews and help them establish how to speak to interviewers here in the States and how to establish best practices that really will make a difference when they land in that first interview. And it comes full circle because a certain section of our clothing shop is dedicated to just business professional attire. So once someone goes through the whole pre-prep process, and they’re finally ready to go out and do interviews on their own, we also make sure they leave here with all of that professional attire so they can leave here and feel very confident when they get those interviews.


DN: That’s quite amazing. That’s quite amazing. I didn’t know that. You’ve been here for a number a years. Do you see a change in the kind of immigrant and refugee populations that Care for Real serves?

LA: Well unfortunately what I see is just the number continues to grow. I don’t think that we’ll see an end to that any time soon. So part of my responsibility here in leading the team is making sure we have a solid foundation of support so that anyone that comes through our door leaves with what they need to survive.

DN: You said earlier that Care for Real was an outgrowth of E.C.R.A. which is a uniquely Edgewater phenomenon, where the different religious groups came together to work to help people in need. And this has been going on since 1970. Do you feel that this model, coming from the unique character of Edgewater, could be exported to other neighborhoods, and if so, how could that happen?


LA: That would be a dream of ours. We’re proud of Care for Real and what we’ve helped established here. It does speak to what makes Edgewater so unique because I really don’t know of an agency that exists like ours throughout the Chicago land area. But as the success of Care for Real expands and people are finding out more about us through professional arenas…. We have people that constantly come in here to see how our operation works. You know the fact that we are able to maintain this with just a very tiny staff speaks to how it can be replicated throughout Chicago. It can be done. It’s a lot of hard work and you have to be dedicated to your cause. But our dream here between the Board and the staff and the volunteers and truly our clients really is one that we’ve hoped we’ve established a model here that we hope can be used throughout the neighborhoods in the entire city.


DN: I think I’ve asked you all the questions that I’ve come up with, but this is your interview and your story Lyle. So are there other things you’d like to share with us while we are talking?

LA: Well I’d just like to say to anyone if you haven’t been to our facility I welcome the opportunity to give you a tour and see our operation at work. I can promise you you’ll leave inspired. The amount of good work and the positive vibe that fills our facility is something that you’ll feel yourself. As I started this conversation, I will tell you these are busy times for us. And every dollar that’s donated to us goes so far. So whether it’s a dollar, a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars, I ask you to open up your heart and your checkbook and think about donating to Care for Real today.

DN: Well I think that donation would really make a difference in someone’s life.

LA: It truly does.

DN: So I hope the message goes out. And I want to thank you so much for taking time for sharing those experiences with us.

LA: Well thank you the pleasure was all mine.