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How First Charter Helps Chicago Soup Kitchen

How First Charter Helps Chicago Soup Kitchen

Karen Nochimowski

Chicago chef and writer Karen Nochimowski was running the successful cooking blog, MommaChef.com, which had about 80,000 followers. Though she was at the peak of her career, something was missing. “I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled,” Karen says. She wanted to give back, and having been involved in various philanthropic food delivery programs in the past, she knew there were so many underserved people who needed to be fed.

What could she do, she wondered? The idea to start a soup kitchen popped into her head one night in June 2018, and by morning, she had decided to do it.

Momma Chef’s Soup Kitchen is Born

First, Karen found a venue: Congregation KINS in north suburban Chicago donated its space. Then, she started working her network for volunteers. Karen’s followers and members of the community were enthusiastic and signed up immediately. She held fundraisers to offset other costs, and opened Momma Chef’s Soup Kitchen in October of 2018.

The kitchen now serves more than 7,000 free meals every year, and relies several hundred volunteers. The meals happen every Tuesday, and include a 7-course, gourmet-quality dinner. “It’s more than just a meal. We make it an uplifting atmosphere,” Karen says. Unlike the experience of getting food from a homeless shelter, this is an elevated evening, designed to make people feel valued and special.

The facility can hold 90 people, and she usually gets 60 or 70. In fact, getting the people there was one of the big challenges. And that’s where First Student comes in.

How Charter Bus Transportation Made the Difference

Karen wanted the meal to be accessible to anyone who needed it, but several months in, she realized that anyone who wasn’t within walking distance to the soup kitchen didn’t have the money for transportation to get there.

She started calling bus rental companies, but most didn’t offer the flexibility she needed. First Student was the only bus rental service that really listened to what she was doing, understood her mission, and worked with her to design a school bus rental program that would best serve the soup kitchen.

Now, a First Student bus picks up anyone who wants to eat at Momma Chef’s at a designated location, transports them to the kitchen, and then returns them back when the meal is over. From the very beginning, First Student driver Whitney Brown has operated the bus. “Whitney is as invested in this as I am,” Karen says. “She cares so much!”

“We’ve gotten to know each other,” Whitney says of the people she transports to the kitchen each week. “They’ll update me on a job they got or other things going on,” she says. Whitney enjoys driving people to the meal, and usually plays music the passengers like to sing along to. She wants to make it a nice environment with a good vibe, because people deserve that, she says. She even helped pass out coats and goody bags of hats, scarves, hand-warmers, and other necessities around the holidays. “To see their faces, it was a really good feeling to see other people enjoying the spirit and not left out,” Whitney says.

Karen appreciates that Whitney is on time every week, and always does a headcount before she leaves (the meal usually takes about 75 minutes). Sometimes Whitney will eat with them, but often, Karen packs up a meal for her.

Karen is already thinking about what’s next. While she has no plans to expand the soup kitchen—it’s already a massive undertaking as it is—she has her eye on having a mobile pantry some day. Perhaps a First Student bus will have a role to play there as well.

“I’m indebted to First Student for their professionalism, flexibility, and dedication in working with our soup kitchen,” Karen says. “Thank you, First Student, for helping us change the world—one meal at a time.”

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