In 1969, a lone employee paid by Catholic Charities led dozens of volunteers determining the need _ primarily food-related _ in six suburban communities and how to meet it at a time when the term "safety net" was associated with circus trapeze artists.
The result was an effort called Respond Now, and 50 years later, the Chicago-Heights-based non-profit is staffed by 11 employees and powered by volunteers who contribute more than 6,000 hours every year, serving nearly 25 communities.
In human terms, that service translates into 14,000 families who've come to Respond Now with housing, hunger and health issues. The agency serves a geographic area roughly bordered by interstates 80 and 57 on the north and west, the Indiana state line on the east and the Will-Kankakee county border on the south.
Executive Director Carl Wolf said the volume of clients "is a sign our services have an impact."
Families pick up a week's worth of groceries once a month at Respond Now's food pantry. Some clients get money for prescription medicine.
The agency also helps about 100 families a year when a financial crisis hits to stay in their homes through one-time payments for mortgage, rent or utilities. "They have to show they can pay their bills normally," Wolf said.
In addition, the agency provides rapid re-housing yearly for 30 homeless people.
Everyone needs the basics. Wolf said. "If we want our communities to be successful, it's important to have the basics in place."
Expansions in the past six years funded by area businesses, churches and individuals as well as grants have left the organization "well positioned to do more," he said.
Respond Now's services, Wolf said, provide "extra stability" to the South Suburbs which, he said, have a higher rate of poverty than the rest of Chicagoland.
He attributed the poverty to area economic changes brought on by "disinvestment _ the abandonment by industry," the area's "isolation from the larger Chicagoland and migration of people from the (Chicago) housing projects."
Wolf declined to speculate on "the larger questions regarding economic development" and south suburban Chicago, but acknowledged seeing "some stabilization from the 2008 crisis.
"Yeah, there's improvement," he said. "There are jobs in the University Park/I-57 corridor. The Halsted Corridor is doing good; there's a little bit here and there."
Wolf said Respond Now's expanded services include financial education and "could provide more in terms of financial literacy, but we've come to a crossroads in our ability to provide an increased level of services."
"We're hamstrung in terms of space," he said noting the current location in the 1400 block of Emerald Avenue is good, "but it's not sufficient."
So Respond Now will mark its 50th anniversary Sept. 19 with a Sept. 19 fundraiser at Flossmoor Station, 1035 Sterling Ave., Flossmoor.
Event highlights include live music, craft beers and raffle tickets that include a prize option to be "brewmaster for a day" at Flossmoor Station. The restaurant and brewery is noted for producing more than 80 award-winning craft beers over the past 25 years.
Additionally, Flossmoor Station will sell a signature beer during September for Respond Now, with a portion of the sale price going to the social service agency.
Respond Now board President Patrick Gallagher, noting the organization was started by the community, said continued support "gives us the flexibility to do the work the community entrusted to us 50 years ago, because all of our neighbors matter."