Former cop starts effort to feed homeless with little red wagon

January 31, 2013

To say that Lisa Nigro is unique would be a serious understatement.

This former Chicago cop breathed life into the idea that one concerned citizen could feed the  hungry and the homeless. She started out by transporting sandwiches and coffee in a little red wagon that she pulled through the streets of Uptown with friends.

That initial concept eventually morphed into Inspiration Corporation, a social services agency to help people struggling with homelessness and poverty.

Over the years, Nigro – who’s the founder and still volunteers – has had some powerful experiences there. She says she’s come across some old high school classmates who had become homeless, and were in need of services.

Then there was a tense moment when Nigro saw someone she’d arrested back when she was a cop. She was a little worried about what might happen if the man recognized her. He did, but he told her he thought she’d treated him fairly.

My first meeting with Nigro was at Inspiration Corporation’s business office and training facility on North Broadway near Wilson Avenue. There’s an Inspiration Café on the second floor, where people struggling with homelessness can come order breakfast off the menu every morning and dinner four times a week. Many of the people who eat there are also taking classes in food preparation, training that will qualify some of them to work in Inspiration Kitchens, one of the group’s two restaurants. Other services include food pantries, career readiness training, housing and scholarships.

I sat in on one of the classes and observed people who were willing and eager to learn. During a classroom break, several students told me something about what led them here. One woman, who was a bit older, told me she was homeless and addicted to drugs, but she liked being here because even though she had hit rock-bottom, the staff treated her with respect and genuine concern. She said cooking is her passion, and that part of the change she wants to make is being employed doing something she really likes. This, in turn, has given her the momentum to take steps toward bettering her life and fulfilling her role as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

I met a young man who graduated from high school just a few short years ago. He had pleasant memories of spending quality time in the kitchen with his mother and brothers, whipping up different surprise dishes. But he left his foster home right after high school, thinking he could make it on his own. A year later, his brothers were murdered.

He attributes his homelessness to some poor choices he made after that.

The young man said the food preparation classes were the first steps toward opening his own eatery someday, named after his deceased brothers.

The restaurants where people work after the job training, Inspiration Kitchens, have a customer-friendly atmosphere and a décor displaying tasteful, understated solid colors that provide a wonderful backdrop for this impressive dining choice.

I met three people here who’d gone through job training through the agency:  two food preparers and a gentleman who warmly greets and serves customers. Not only are these folks working and no longer homeless, they have essentially reclaimed their lives.

When I entered the restaurant, there was a customer on the way out. She called out to tell me how good the food was. The restaurant serves upscale food like cider-braised pork, crawfish cake Benedict and green tomato omelets.

I did have lunch there that day, and that customer was right. The food was great!

WBEZ's Greta Johnsen produced this piece.

Note: To hear the back story about how Lisa Nigro founded the agency, and the role her little red wagon played, listen to the audio above.