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Together We Cope celebrates 30 years in the south suburbs

Volunteers work in the Together We Cope food pantry in 2011. (Ashley Rueff/TribLocal)

Volunteers work in the Together We Cope food pantry in 2011. (Ashley Rueff/TribLocal)

What started as a clothing collection for one south suburban family in 1982 has grown into one of the area’s largest non-profit groups, serving more than 8,700 people through its support programs last year.

After 30 years in the south suburbs, Together We Cope organizers say they are relishing the chance to celebrate its three decades of service during its annual dinner dance event Friday.

“It’s a milestone for us,” said Executive Director Kathryn Straniero. “There’s such a sense of accomplishment. We’re standing here beside all these amazing people that work with us every single day with a sea of people that we’ve assisted, and we’re still looking to being bigger and better.”

The Tinley Park-based agency that helps families get through temporary financial struggles by providing food, clothing and other assistance programs, was started by Loraine Cook in 1982 when the Oak Forest resident began collecting clothing for a family in need. More struggling families surfaced and Cook’s garage turned into a holding place for donated food and clothing.

“Those earlier years were just really grassroots with a bunch of neighbors helping,” said Mary Ann Baer, development director with TWC.

The items continued to come in and eventually Cook moved her work into a storefront on 159th Street in Oak Forest in 1989, the same year TWC was incorporated as a non-profit. The organization’s resale shop was created in 1993 to both raise funds and to serve families in need, but Cook passed away shortly after, Baer said.

The group continued with the help of volunteers and a handful of part-time employees. Straniero came to take over as executive director in the mid-1990s and over the years, TWC has added more and more programs to support its growing number of clients.

The organization has operated out of its Tinley Park location at 17010 S. Oak Park Ave. since purchasing the building in 2000 and now has 28 part-time employees and about 150 regular volunteers. Its budget is about $2.6 million with 92 percent going to fund programs and services.

Last year, TWC served about 55 families per day through its food pantry, distributing more than $1 million in food. About $185,000 was given to help families stay in their homes, $142,000 in merchandise was given to families from the TWC resale shop, more than 1,000 children received school supplies and Christmas presents, plus much more.

One of the organization’s biggest advocates is Annette Clark who recently lost her son, Rocky Clark at age 27, 10 years after he was paralyzed during a high school football game in 2000. He passed away in January. Their family became well known across the nation for their fight to change the health insurance industry after his benefits were capped in 2010.

“They had open arms for me and my son and the situation we were going through, and after he passed I still had things that mounted up and they were there to help me through the storm,” she said. “I love them so much.”

Families battling growing medical debts are among the many who have increasingly sought assistance from TWC in recent years, Straniero said. TWC sees a steady increase in the number of people seeking assistance each year, but the recession has brought in more families who need help for a longer period of time.

“The goal was always to treat these families, stabilize them and send them on their way. There is very little stabilization going on right now,” Straniero said.

Many clients served in recent years were middle-class families where a breadwinner was unexpectedly laid off and hasn’t been able to find work. Many who have donated to TWC in the past are now walking in and seeking assistance for themselves, she said.

The continued growth means the group constantly has to evaluate its services to make sure it’s as efficient as possible. There is talk of creating a satellite location to accommodate more programs, but just like the families it serves, TWC struggles to keep up with the financial demand as well.

“That’s why this 30th celebration, it’s important that it’s a good one, because funding is low everywhere and all these people still need help,” she said.

More than serving as a fundraiser this year, organizers say the dinner dance is a chance for the community to celebrate TWC accomplishments and to continue to spread the word about its work.

“It’s a time to look back and look at the accomplishments and the challenges,” Baer said. “We have made a difference in the lives of a lot of people.”

The dinner dance and 30th anniversary celebration will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Odyssey Country Club, 19110 S. Ridgeland Ave. Tickets are $90 and can be purchased at the door. For more information, call 708-633-5040.

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