DOWNERS GROVE – On a Friday morning in June, the doors to the southern entrance of the Downers Grove Township office are wide open. Boxes full of fresh fruits and produce, loaves of bread and baked goods are stacked out in front. Volunteers from the Downers Grove Area FISH Food Pantry move quickly through an inventory check and wait for clients to come.
A few steps further inside the office and down a narrow staircase, other staff stay ready to help residents in need and show them what the pantry offers. Like a maze, the shelves – which mostly hold canned goods, personal care items and household supplies – stretch in different directions, creating small aisles in between and ultimately leading to a row of refrigerators stocked with frozen meat, pizza and more. Near the middle of the room, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing and accessories are neatly displayed on racks.
For more than 30 years, FISH has operated out of the township office, but the charity was first created by a Christian ministry in 1969 and originally was located in Lisle. In that time, the organization has expanded and now serves individuals, couples and families from Downers Grove, Westmont, Lisle, Darien and Woodridge. This year marks the organization’s 50th anniversary, a milestone that honors its past and welcomes what the future holds.
“We’re all one,” June Miller, who serves as a secretary on the pantry’s board, said about the simple message behind FISH’s commitment to creating a safe space.
That starts by having a choice food pantry. When clients come to FISH, they are given a shopping list that shows all of the pantry’s goods and encouraged to choose their items by quantity. The list is available in English and Spanish, and staff are in the process of translating it into Mandarin.
“A lot of times our clients don’t get a lot of choices in life,” said volunteer Deborah Aguizino, who designed the list. “To empower them by giving them choices is really important to me.”
She added that some clients who visit the food pantry have allergies or dietary restrictions and FISH has to find ways to accommodate them. Offering them something they couldn’t eat would prove to be a disservice. Miller and Aguizino said they hand out pre-packed bags for homeless individuals filled with ready-to-eat items such as juice boxes and also toiletries.
“We really try to make it as personable of a selection as possible,” Aguizino said.
Aside from the food pantry and clothes closet, FISH provides clients with transportation to medical appointments, as well as some financial assistance for housing, car repairs and utility bills. The organization even accepts prayer requests for those in need of guidance and spiritual strength.
“You think of [these communities] as a fairly upper middle class area, but there’s a lot of families who are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Mary Rakowski, a volunteer of 21 years. She added that unforeseen changes in families’ lifestyles, such as job loss, divorce or the death of loved ones, “can really throw them off into a tailspin.”
In the past decade, the nation’s economic crises such as the Great Recession in the late 2000s or the 35-day government shutdown in January greatly affected area residents.
“We had Realtors coming in here who were making very good income, and then, literally, the next day, nothing,” Rakowski said as she thought back to the recession.
The FISH Pantry is in the basement of the Downers Grove Township office, which is tucked away on Prince Street. The small building is easy to miss, almost hidden, just like the clients it serves. People from all walks of life come to FISH, some of whom have visited for years, while others hit “a rough bump in the road,” Aguizino said.
Miller, herself, knew there was a pantry in Downers Grove, but wasn’t sure where it was. A resident of Downers Grove since 1976, Miller was a teacher at Herrick Middle School and Downers Grove North High School. “[I] frankly never thought that it was here, right in my backyard,” she said. “That’s North High right across the street. And, so, when I retired in 1993, I decided I wanted to come find out where it is and I wanted to volunteer.”
The community’s hands keep the organization strong, Miller said. Fresh items are donated locally by Jewel-Osco, and in a recent Letter Carriers’ food drive, the pantry received about 32,000 pounds – a whopping 16 tons – of canned goods and nonperishable foods. Area churches, schools, law enforcement departments and other groups also have contributed to the pantry’s stockpile.
And when it comes to the volunteers, they go above and beyond. In fact, most of them have been with FISH for decades such as Ruth Anderson, a volunteer of 48 years.
Year-round, they collect, pack, sort and organize the pantry and the clothes closet, as well as promote the services at FISH. Off the clock, some deliver food to those who are unable to come to the pantry, while others offer extra rides.
Looking ahead, Miller said she and the board have talked about building a new space for FISH, one that’s bigger, roomier and can accomodate both volunteers and clients. Other than that, she remains focused on fulfilling the pantry’s promise of support.
This is a humbling experience for everyone involved and having compassion, empathy and love are key to continuing the work, Miller said.
“You can’t look at the tops and bottoms of everything,” she added, noting that the people who come to the pantry are lost, in need of comfort and/or [don’t] want to be here. “You look at what your service is, and you know, Ruth has a philosophy: When in doubt, give out.”
The Downers Grove Area Food Pantry is located at 4340 Prince St. in Downers Grove. The pantry is open from 9 to 11:15 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays. Families who live in Downers Grove, Westmont or Lisle can visit the food pantry twice a month.
For information or guidelines, call 630-964-7776 or visit www.downersgrovefish.org. Other updates can be found on the Downers Grove Area FISH’s Facebook page.