This post was written by Loyola University Chicago student Raven Icaza, and originally posted here.
Richard Kaczmarek does not hand over spare change or leftovers when prompted by the homeless. Instead, he offers what appears to be a small square ticket, good for food or personal care items at local stores and restaurants. To some, he is known as the Chicago Shares man, but in fact he is president of the not-for-profit corporation based in Holy Name Cathedral.
Chicago Shares voucher
Kaczmarek, 73, is responsible for all phases of the operation, from recruiting volunteers, appointing board members, right down to purchasing and distributing vouchers. The concept behind the voucher: feed those in need while preventing monetary access to drugs or alcohol.
Partnered with other churches, synagogues, merchants and a volunteer staff, Chicago Shares has become a self-sufficient operation.
“Chicago Shares was the entity that developed the shares, produced the shares and sold them to the participating churches. The churches then in turn sell them to their congregations,” Kaczmarek explained.
Often a combination of cash and vouchers are redeemed at the merchants.
“At the end of each month, the merchant contacts us. One of our volunteers goes to the merchant and delivers a check for the full value of the vouchers,” he said.
The participating stores and restaurants receive more business as the result.
“Most of all, they are helping people who are in need. But financially, they aren’t hurt. We don’t expect them to give them or us a discount,” Kaczmarek said.
With an average 80 percent redemption rate used at over a dozen locations stretching from the Loop to Lincoln Park, it appears the system is working.
“Not all the vouchers we sell are used,” Kaczmarek said.
About 20 percent of the funds from the voucher sales remain in Chicago Shares accounts. Only a small fraction of this goes into administrative expenses such as printing the vouchers and maintaining a website. With no office or paid staff, the remaining funds reach those in need
“We have donated $74,000 in cash to organizations that serve the homeless,” Kaczmarek said.
Since its beginning in 1992, Chicago Shares has provided thousands of vouchers which the disadvantaged can exchange for food or other items. Ann Klocke, 76, pastoral assistant at Holy Name, set to work modeling this organization that addressed the concerns of the donors while meeting the needs of the homeless after reading about a similar project in Berkeley, Calif.
“I was on my way over here for an evening meeting, and four different times people asked me for money. You wish you could do something for these folks, and everyone should have dinner,” Klocke said.
For Ron Polaniecki, 61, volunteer and board member of Chicago Shares, the simplicity of the organization is most appealing.
“I thought it was a very innovative and simple solution to something that always bothered me– how to give something to a person on the street without fumbling for cash or pulling out my wallet, and how to be sure that the recipient would use my money for food, and not alcohol or drugs,” Polaniecki said.
It was in 2000 that Kaczmarek joined the Chicago Shares team as a co-executive director, but a passion for serving those in need stems from his upbringing in the Catholic faith.
“My work with Chicago Shares offers me the opportunity to serve God’s people in a small way by helping to feed some of the hungry poor,” Kaczmarek said.
His work at Holy Name extends to the Right of Christian Initiation for Adults, helping adults become members of the Catholic Church.
Kaczmarek also devotes some time to Learning Ally, a Chicago organization that records text books for blind and dyslexic students. He is a supporter of a number of organizations and charities such as UNICEF, and is a freedom writer for Amnesty International.
In May 2010, Kaczmarek became president of Chicago Shares, replacing its founder, Klocke.
“He has brought very good order to us. He also has a really big heart and loves very much to help the needy,” Klocke said.
Kaczmarek notes that the needs of disadvantaged and homeless Chicagoans extends beyond spare change.
“Addiction control, education, finding a home, finding a job—those are long term,” Kaczmarek said. “But they have got to have something to eat today, and that’s where Chicago Shares comes in.”
If you would like more information on Chicago Shares or how to purchase vouchers, visit www.chicagoshares.org or call 312-573-4494.