Inspiration Corporation: improving lives and offering self sufficiency

Who said that because you are poor you can’t have a decent meal? Or better yet, why couldn’t you be served in a restaurant and order your favorite meal from a menu? It is a dignity issue that is being addressed more than a hunger issue or anything like it.

Yes, we have all seen homeless people wandering around with nothing to do and sometimes committing crimes, but the big majority of these people simply don’t have a place to stay. On the other hand, we have all seen poor people, with big necessities asking for money on the street or begging for food.

Well, this amazing charity institution has gathered all these issues and decided to address them through a restaurant that then became a program that included case management, additional supportive services, advice on housing, and a food skills training program called Inspiration Kitchens. The name is Inspiration Corporation, and it is even a catchy one that “inspires” to help and to be part of the movement. Let’s take a look at how they became the amazing charity they are today.

The creator of all this idea was Lisa Nigro. She first founded Inspiration Cafe in 1989 when she had the crazy idea of borrowing her nephew’s red wagon and filling it with coffee and sandwiches. She used to be a police officer so she knew her way around the city and she went to the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and started offering meals and more importantly a little bit of dignity to the people she ran into. With time, more people got involved and they went from a wagon to a van and then to converting a bus into a traveling cafe.

Some months after, her crazy idea captured the attention of the Uptown neighborhood locals and all the media in the city.  She soon received a phone call from a person that owned a shop and was eager to help.  He offered the shop for an amazing  1 dollar for a six-month lease on  Wilson Avenue. After this amazing contribution, the Cafe moved into the new space and it was quickly converted into a restaurant for the homeless. Here, men and women could have a chat, sit down, order off a menu and be politely served, like any other person, with dignity. Fortunately, with time, the café expanded into a full-service office offering services such as case management, supportive services, housing, and much more. 

At the same time, and on the other side of town, The Living Room Cafe and The Employment Project were created to serve people from Chicago affected by homelessness and poverty. The Employment Project began in the year 1994 and was started by Luke Weisberg and a group of professionals that gave homeless and low-income Chicagoans employment training, career counseling and job placement. On the other hand, The Living Room Cafe started operations in 1995 with the brains of Jennifer Kihm who had been an intern at Inspiration Cafe. Some time later, the Inspiration Cafe moved to the site at 4554 N Broadway and started to work hand by hand with the Living Room Café.

In 2001, the Inspiration Café received the first houses to give them as grants for the homeless. They also started with programs to help these people grow financially, look for a job and improve their quality of life. In 2003, The Living Room Cafe and Inspiration Cafe merged to create what is known today as Inspiration Corporation that focuses on providing meals and supportive services to people affected by homelessness and poverty.  

In 2005, Inspiration Corporation and The Employment Project merged so the whole “corporation” would be complete. With this merger, the organization was able to save money on administrative and fundraising costs and focus those efforts on providing holistic services to better serve the needs of participants and allocate resources to help homeless men and women increase self-sufficiency. This same year the Inspiration Corporation started their flag program called Inspiration Kitchens that was a Café, a restaurant and a training center in Uptown. This initiative was aimed at giving the culinary students the proper skills they need in a real restaurant and to enter the workforce with the exact experience and confidence needed to become successful in life. This program touches the two core values that Inspiration Corporation has: great food and a commitment to improving lives.

Two years later, in  2007, The Employment Project started Career Connections in order to include participants in the education system and give them vocational training so they can become employed and can get out of poverty.

In 2011, Inspiration Corporation opened another Inspiration Kitchens program in Garfield Park, located about one block from the Garfield Park Conservatory. In this property, there are a lot of sustainable gardens and many other environmentally friendly gadgets such as solar-heated hot water, smart range hoods and lighting, a lot of recycled materials, and many bike racks.

Be sure to also check this amazing article on the power of philanthropy