Difference Maker: The Ark 

Lisa Fielding
June 23, 2020 - 11:04 am
The Ark

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding


CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- For The Ark in Rogers Park, helping people is nothing new. In fact, they've been doing it for 50 years.

"We were originally founded by a doctor and two rabbis in Albany Park in 1971 as a medical clinic," said Mark Swatez, Executive Director. "We are a wrap around service institution really trying to deal, help people with anything we can. We have social services, we have medical services, we have psychological services, we have a food pantry, we have a homeless shelter, we have financial services and employment services. We are really trying to serve the entire person, help people get back on their feet, and break the cycle."

Swatez calls it a "one stop shop" with two locations in Rogers Park and in Northbrook. But when the pandemic hit in mid-March, the phones starting ringing off the hook.

"I remember when we came to work on Monday, March 16. That was when the word was out that we really not only need to help people and that there were incredible needs out there, but we needed to reassess the way we were delivering services," said Victoria Hass, Clinical Director.

Hass and Swatez quickly knew they had to pivot and step up.

"We needed to create another way to deliver our essential services. Previously we had a very small delivery program, but many, many people now needed deliveries," Hass said. "We also had to create a safe environment for our volunteers who pack up the food, delivering medications, food and sometimes even financial assistance. People were so glad to learn we were open the whole time. So many people were lost." 

The Ark
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding reports.

In the last three months, they've seen a 300 percent increase in the need for financial assistance and a 400 percent increase in visits to their food pantry.

"We are open Monday through Thursday and our clients come by appointment," said Jamie Brocker, Pantry Supervisor.

"Right when everything hit, mid March, we had every single client was calling, they were upset, they were nervous, they were losing their jobs. We had clients who hadn't been here in years, who wanted to come back and hundreds of new clients who never had the need for our services before who were starting to come in."

The Ark
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Ayala Schwartz is an intern at The Ark. She's been packing up food care packages full of peas, applesauce, juice, baked beans, tuna, cereal, pasta, milk and toilet paper.

"My grandpa comes here to volunteer here so that's how I started the connection here. It's a great place and I love to help people so that's why I'm here," she said.

The Ark food pantry
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

"We were just bagging, bagging, bagging, non-stop each day," Brocker said.

The Ark's two locations suddenly became a life line for hundreds more than their usual 4,000 per year client list.

"We've had more than 180 new clients come in the door. A lot of our previous clients who were hanging onto our pinky at this point in their lives really have now grabbed the whole hand again, where they were just getting some school supplies to get them through the year, are now needing food and financial assistance. The two biggest things people need now is food and financial assistance," said Swatez. "We actually also had issues getting food. The Greater Chicago Food Depository helped us tremendously. The Federal government also helped with maximizing the SNAP program, the food stamps. That made it easier for our clients and us to get them the food assistance they needed. We had lines of cars down the street to get our food."

The Ark
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

The Ark team said they've learned a lot during the last three months, and that essential services have taken on new meaning.

"It's amazing how many people have stepped up to help. Especially our sister agencies. Dick Durbin's office called us and we were able to get a PPP loan so that helped tremendously. Our alderman's office helped us get grants. Our grant foundations were sending us large checks. Our PayPal account blew up. The community really stepped up and helped. It was quite extraordinary how many people stepped up and said we need to support the folks most vulnerable in our community," he said.

But through the storm and after, Swatez said the need will still be there so they are still on target to expand.

"We've thought about expanding and the building next door just happened to be for sale, so we purchased it and we're ready to grow," he said.

The Ark
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

A new building and renovation project are scheduled to begin this fall. He hopes to open the brand new facility in Rogers Park sometime next year. 

The Ark has been serving the Chicagoland Jewish community for 50 years. Now, through a pandemic and beyond.

"We've learned that The Ark can weather anything, that no matter what, The Ark is going to be standing and The Ark is going to be there for people," Hass said

For more information or to donate you can log on to arkchicago.org