Caring Kitchen serves Urbana, Champaign County for 35 years

Since 1985, Caring Kitchen has been a staple in Urbana and Champaign County, serving those in need of shelter, clothing, food, and more.

And though some of the organization’s services have had to look a little different this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Caring Kitchen’s dedication to helping local residents in need has stayed constant.

The non-profit organization was founded 35 years ago by Carl and Nedra Gordan.

“I always tell everybody that Carl and Nedra are the heart of the Caring Kitchen; they gave birth to it,” says Caring Kitchen Executive Director Marilyn Cohn. “They listened, and now we’re doing what we need to be doing here.”

Caring Kitchen started as a soup kitchen and food pantry in the basement of a building down the street from its current location at 300 Miami St. Though the main focus was on feeding people in need, the Gordons also would set up cots for people who didn’t have anywhere to stay, Cohn says.

The current building was an empty Kroger building that Nedra was convinced it was perfect for Caring Kitchen to expand. The organization now fills half of that building and has grown to offer a wider variety of services through the years.

Though Nedra died in 1994 and Carl soon after in 1996, their mission of advocating for and serving people in need has continued.

Cohn says she has either worked for or volunteered for Caring Kitchen throughout its entire 35 year existence, and she’s proud of the work her team of employees and volunteers do – especially during times made tougher by a health crisis.

“I think that my staff has done an amazing job at keeping this going through all this. We’ve tried to say, ‘This is a very important part of our community, and we need to keep going,’” she says.

Caring Kitchen provides around-the-clock services to those in need.

Before COVID-19 restrictions, the Caring Kitchen could provide temporary living arrangements for 17 people in its shelter space, with the beds are split into a men’s dorm and a women’s dorm, Cohn says. Currently – with some creative maneuvering and beds spread out at night into rooms not usually used for sleeping – the facility is still able to accommodate 16.

Caring Kitchen also occasionally houses people in hotel rooms using COVID-specific CARES Act funding, she says. Typically, those stays are reserved for pregnant women or people who are sick but need shelter.

Clients of Caring Kitchen are background checked before they are welcomed to stay within the facility. Once someone is approved, they can stay for up to 40 days.

“What I’ve told my staff in training is that when someone walks through that door, they’re at the lowest point in their life,” says Cohn, emphasizing how her team wants to ultimately help people get back on their feet.

Caring Kitchen is part of what Cohn calls a continuum of care, in which they meet with a network of other Champaign County organizations to collectively find the best resources to support clients in need.

People staying at Caring Kitchen receive three meals a day and a snack. But, the organization also serves public meals.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and dinner runs from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Most weekends, local organizations and ministries volunteer to provide lunches, Cohn says.

One major meal served by Caring Kitchen each year is Thanksgiving dinner. Though the meal won’t be served in-person for the public this year, dinner will still be provided.

With 687 people served meals on Thanksgiving last year, Cohn says she knows there’s a need.

Meals this year will all be only pickup or delivery instead of a sit-down option. Details about how to make meal reservations and how to volunteer are available on Caring Kitchen’s webpage.

In addition to hot meals, Caring Kitchen’s food pantry provides monthly food boxes to families. The food pantry is accompanied by a clothing pantry, and both are open from 11 a.m. to noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Cohn says.

Outside of COVID restrictions, the Caring Kitchen also offers afterschool tutoring, she says. It used to work closely with the recently closed Urbana University to staff tutoring services with students and professors interested in volunteering their time.

Caring Kitchen also partners with Urbana City Schools to run a backpack program for students who don’t get enough food at home on nights and weekends, Cohn says. Backpacks are filled with a week worth of kid-friendly cereal, snacks, and meals, such as instant noodle packs or instant macaroni and cheese.

People who need utility help also can reach out to Caring Kitchen. Though their Community Crisis Program, local residents can receive support to help pay utility bills. This program is a joint effort with Bridges Community Action Partnership, Cohn says.

Cohn credits the longstanding success of Caring Kitchen to a dedication to the organization’s mission and to the community they are both a part of and serve.

“The community, they want to see us succeed,” she says. “This community just loves us and takes such good care of us.”

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Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.