Community Development / Food / Interviews / Lives

Service is a Two-Way Street: An Interview with Gabriel Lara, Executive Director of The Quinn Center

Gabriel Lara is the first and, so far, only director of the Quinn Community Center at St. Eulalia Parish, located at 1851 S. 9th Avenue in Maywood. The Center opened two years ago in the space that once housed the parish’s parochial school until 2002. It is named after St. Eulalia’s former pastor, Msgr. William Quinn, who, according to the Center’s webpage, “brought with him a strong passion for social justice.” I talked with Mr. Lara about the Center’s mission, its challenges and his own vision for the future of both the Center and the communities it serves.

A Justice-Themed Mural Inside the Quinn Center

A Mural Inside the Quinn Community Center

In addition to the Quinn Center, what other ministries does the St. Eulalia campus host?

The Church has had programming like the food pantry and soup kitchen for 35 years, but it just opened this building  [which formerly housed St. Eulalia School] to community programming. Right now, two groups rent space — West Suburban PADS and RCCH (Hispanic Charismatic Renewal).

Can you talk about some of the financial difficulties the Center has experienced of late?

Quinn isn’t an organization that began with money. It’s [pretty much entirely] financed by the Church, which has financial difficulties itself. In order to fund community programming we have to raise funds. Right now, most programming is ran on a volunteer basis. So, even though we have people, we don’t have resources to expand the programs. Right now, we have an after school program for children that only serves 22 children, but there are a lot more that need the resource.

How do you all raise funds?

We hold different fundraising events and sale food and drinks when different community groups hold events at the Center. For instance, on May 4, at 6pm, we’re having a Fiesta Night. We’ll charge $15 to get in. That will include foods and drink. Every other Saturday from now until June, we’re doing something called Artist Fair, where local artists can rent tables and sell their work. The money that comes in will be used to support the Center. In addition, we’re participating in the Crop Hunger Walk in Oak Park, on May 4. People can donate money to participate in the walk, or they can sponsor someone to participate. The proceeds will go toward our Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry.

Mr. Lara and Kids Setting Up Goods to Sale

Mr. Lara (in blue) and kids setting up goods to sale.

Tell me more  about the after school program.

It has 3 main components: health and nutrition; tutoring in reading, writing and math; and physical activity (open gym, dancing, singing, etc.). We service 1st through 8th grade students. A lot of what we do right now is thanks to Concordia, Dominican and Loyola Medical School. We were able to extend the tutoring program to another day because we had more students volunteering from Concordia. The more that we’re able to get funding, the more people see us and [the more] we’re visible in the community.

In what ways can people volunteer?

We would love for youth volunteers to greet visitors in the front of the building as they come in. There is a parent in the community who, when he found out about the space, asked if he could use his skills as a coach to start a soccer program. Now it serves 20-30 kids. We can use help with arts and crafts, tutoring (this is a BIG need), cleaning, food distribution. We see everybody as a teacher. We see mothers, for example, in food pantry with talents that they can share with the community. At first, they’re hesitant to accept the notion that they have something to offer the people, but when we ask them what foods they like to cook, for instance, they tell us and an opportunity arises to share that interest. We can all be teachers and students of something. So, anybody in the community can come to us with programming ideas and we’ll help implement them. We only ask that people don’t charge high prices and don’t make their plans business ideas. We’re here for people to have a space where they can develop their own ideas and talents, while giving to the community where they live.

Can you talk about the Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen?

These are two components of St. Eulalia’s Hunger Ministry, which also includes a Child Nutrition component. We have an average of 40 families a week from Maywood and Broadview  that benefit from our Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen. There are about 340 unique families on our registration list. This whole month [of April] we’ve had to close because there was no more food. Sometimes people donate canned goods, but what’s more important is cash. The more cash people give the better. We can use this to buy higher quality food.

Inside of St. Eulalia's Food Pantry

Inside of St. Eulalia’s Food Pantry

Do you collaborate with the Chicago Food Depository?

Not yet. Our application goes in to the Depository in November. By then, we hope to be involved with them.

How can families receive food?

People can come in and fill out a registration form. They’ll need proof of residency [St. Eulalia only services the residents of Maywood and Broadview]. Then they get in line. We can only serve up to 40 families. If you’re 41, we’ll ask you to come back next week.

A Representation of Christ Frames the Foreground of Scene in Food Pantry

The food pantry.

Where does the food come from?

We collaborate with other food pantries like Emmanuel Episcopal in La Grange and Divine Savior in Northridge. People in the community and in the church donate things like canned goods and other non-perishables. We also get food from District 89’s lunch program. Whatever the kids don’t eat at lunch, they give to us.

The Recreation Room Inside Quinn Center

The recreation room inside of the Quinn Community Center.

What kind of demographics do you serve?

The ratio of men to women is about 50:50. We get mostly older adults. The average age is probably 50 and over. Right now, we’re experiencing a growth in Latino and Spanish-speaking families, especially in the food pantry. Overall, our ministries at St. Eulalia service about 80 percent African-Americans, 15 percent Hispanic and 5 percent whites.

How did you get involved with the Quinn Center?

I was already working in Berwyn with an after school ESL program for adults. St. Eulalia had an open house and I saw it as a great opportunity. The building had huge potential. So, the priest [Fr. Carmelo Mendez] asked me if I would be interested in applying as the director of the program here. I like community development in the form of people helping to develop programs versus organizations getting grants from the state and creating programs to try to fit people into them. And I thought this would be a great place of empowerment. This should be a place for community, where people help one another [not just us providing charity]. But the community needs to take ownership of it and find a way to fund it.

For more information on the Quinn Community Center at St. Eulalia Parish, visit their website. You can contact Mr. Lara at 773-757-8476, or email him at quinncenter@hotmail.com.

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