Inspiration Kitchens alumni Jermaine and Curtis are putting their skills to work at Mastro’s Restaurants. "I couldn't work at a better place," Curtis says, and Jermaine adds, "My time at Inspiration Corporation was inspiring. I wish everyone who's in need could have the chance to get their training.
When Lisa Nigro founded Inspiration Cafe in 1989, she borrowed her nephew's red wagon and filled it with coffee and sandwiches. A former police officer, Lisa pulled that wagon around the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago offering a little dignity and respect to the people she encountered. Over time, Lisa and other early supporters grew the Cafe beyond that red wagon, first turning a van into a kitchen on wheels and then converting a bus into a travelling cafe.
Lisa's idea, to cook and serve good food with a dash of hope, captured the attention of the Uptown neighborhood and the Chicago media. She soon received a phone call from an Uptown building owner, offering her a six-month lease on a Wilson Avenue storefront for $1.
The Cafe moved into the new space and became a restaurant for the homeless, where men and women could sit down, order off a menu and be served. In the years that followed, Inspiration Cafe expanded its services beyond simply meals, to include case management, supportive services, housing, and our food skills training program Inspiration Kitchens.
Meanwhile, in other parts of town, The Living Room Cafe and The Employment Project were founded to serve Chicagoans affected by homelessness and poverty. The Employment Project, begun in 1994 by Luke Weisberg and a group of professionals serving the homeless, provided homeless and low-income Chicagoans with employment training, career counseling and job placement. The Living Room Cafe was created in 1995 by Jennifer Kihm, a former intern at Inspiration Cafe. The Living Room Cafe offered meals and supportive services to the Woodlawn community on Chicago's south side. In 1998, Inspiration Cafe moved to the site at 4554 N Broadway, which remains our organization's headquarters.
In 2001, Inspiration Cafe received its first government grant for subsidized housing, with eight units of scattered site supportive housing on the north side. The Housing Services program has grown steadily and today offers more than 159 rent subsidies for families and individuals who also receive wraparound supportive services to help them increase the income, overcome their barriers, and increase self-sufficiency.
In 2003, The Living Room Cafe and Inspiration Cafe merged to become Inspiration Corporation, with the goal of providing meals and supportive services with streamlined and efficient administration. Two years later, in 2005, Inspiration Corporation and The Employment Project merged to create an organization that provides holistic services to better serve the needs of participants. By saving on administrative and fundraising costs, Inspiration Corporation could focus more resources on our mission: helping homeless men and women increase self-sufficiency.
Later in 2005, Inspiration Corporation celebrated the opening of the Inspiration Kitchens (formerly Cafe Too) restaurant and training center in Uptown. At Inspiration Kitchens, culinary students could hone their skills in a real restaurant and enter the workforce with the experience and confidence needed to succeed. With Inspiration Kitchens, we focus on two of our core values – great food and a commitment to improving lives.
In 2007, The Employment Project started Career Connections, an initiative that helps participants access education and vocational training in order to become employed and exit poverty.
In 2011, Inspiration Corporation made another leap forward, opening Inspiration Kitchens – Garfield Park, a second site for our Foodservice Training program and our social enterprise restaurant. Inspiration Kitchens – Garfield Park includes capacity for large-scale catering and is piloting many best practices. Located about one block from the Garfield Park Conservatory, this model property includes a sustainable garden and many other green elements, such as solar-heated hot water, smart range hoods and lighting, recycled materials, and bike racks.
Inspiration Corporation purchased an eight-unit apartment building in 2012 to provide four units of affordable housing and four units of subsidized housing to large families in Washington Park, just 1.2 miles from The Living Room Cafe.