YWCA Laura Parks & Mildred Francis Center

For more than 50 years, women and families in need of economic empowerment programs, crisis support services, or other community resources have turned to the YWCA in Woodlawn. As community needs of all kinds have spiked in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has partnered with the University of Chicago and expanded its offerings to feed its neighbors as well.

UChicago Dining vendors prepared and delivered 600 meals to the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s Laura Parks and Mildred Francis Center in Woodlawn location each Sunday starting in mid-April, providing nearly 5,000 meals to those struggling to feed themselves and their families. The joint effort launched as part of the University’s Community Support Initiative. A new phase of the initiative is now instead employing locally-owned catering companies to prepare meals for the center which the University is paying for and delivering on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Dorri McWhorter, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s CEO, says the program has drawn those who had previously sought YWCA services as well as a significant number of new visitors who live nearby.

“This was a way for us to just be in community differently,” McWhorter says. “We do a lot of outreach and attend a lot of fairs and different community events but as we all know, in our homes when we have meals and people come over, it just creates a different environment.”

The YWCA was one of nearly 40 food distribution sites across the University’s nine- neighborhood focus area on the South Side enlisted for the first phase of the Community Support Initiative, facilitating a total of nearly 260,000 meals provided through mid-June. Each week, McWhorter says she was inspired by meal recipients’ gratitude and their desire to pay the kindness forward during a difficult period. Time and again, McWhorter and her team saw people take only one or two meals in an effort to ensure there would be enough for their neighbors in need as well.

When bouts of civil unrest broke out in nearby neighborhoods in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, McWhorter says more than one neighbor who had been by to pick up meals earlier in the day returned to warn the YWCA of the potential threat. That sense of community shined on Mother’s Day as well when neighborhood residents went home with potted plants from the University and small appliances thanks to a YWCA donor in addition to their weekly meals.

“Partnering with the University has allowed us to get the volume and the quality of the food, which has been helpful, as well as added bonuses like the flowers. It has been from a place of support and valuing the community and people really appreciate that,” McWhorter said. “From our perspective, when we do partnerships it has to be a win-win-win and I felt like this was such a great example of a win-win-win. I know the people we serve feel the same way and, to me, that’s the most important thing—for our people to feel that they have had a great experience.”

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