We Rise Together: $7.4M in COVID impact grants uplifts community plans

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A financial coalition focusing on Chicago's equitable recovery awarded $7.4 million worth of grants Thursday to real estate development projects that were already underway when the pandemic hit.

We Rise Together: For An Equitable and Just Recovery is a coalition of private, public, and philanthropic funders focused on communities that historically have been disinvested, including neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

On Thursday, 10 projects in eight communities received grants to propel their plans forward, despite the COVID-19 setback.

In South Lawndale, Latinos Progresando has been planning for years to transform a vacant, old city library building into a community center. But when the pandemic hit, the group's focus shifted immediately.

"We had to stop, because at that time we had to make sure the families in our community had what they needed to survive," said Luis Gutierrez, the founder and CEO of Latinos Progresando.

On Thursday, We Rise Chicago announced it awarded the neighborhood organization a $1 million dollar grant to transform the library into the Latinos Progresando Community Center.

Gutierrez expects the project to be completed by the end of 2022. When finished, he said students will be able to receive mental health services, along with after-school programs run by Lincoln Park Zoo.

"What recovery looks like is investing directly in the neighborhoods in the city of Chicago that have been historically disinvested in, and have been hit hardest by COVID," Gutierrez said. "

"I'm ecstatic, excited. I still can't believe it. It's such a blessing," he added. "I can't tell you how much this means to me, to Latinos Progresando, to the entire community. It is transforming this entire project."

Gloria Castillo of We Rise Together said urgency is important. She said all the projects selected are expected to be operational in 12 months, and she expects it will help the surroundings blocks and neighborhoods.

"We have to make sure that communities that have suffered the most are not left behind," Castillo said. "That's really the critical part of our work. It really strengthens the entire region."

In Greater Grand Crossing, a vacant grocery store will now become ChiFresh Kitchen - a retail, catering, and food service business.

ChiFresh Kitchen received an $850,000 grant, Castillo said.

The black-owned cooperative currently operates in a kitchen they have outgrown, and the owners, all five formerly incarcerated, now have visions for the future.

"We're just trying to make it out here, and just do great things in the community, and we're very excited about that," said Renee Taylor, co-owner of ChiFresh Kitchen.

ChiFresh Kitchen owners expect to be fully operational early next year. The owners hope to lift others up as well, including those who have spent time in prison.

"I want to be able to hire more incarcerated women so they can have the same dreams, goal and opportunities we were given," said Sarah Stadtfeld, Co-Owner, ChiFresh Kitchen.

After all, the group takes pride in their cooking.

"Everyone says our meals are super delicious," Stadtfeld said. "You should try them."

We Rise Together released the following about each project:

  • Café Du Bois, Washington Heights: A multi-functional coffee shop will occupy a refurbished vacant building. It will provide three critical community amenities: 1) An employee-owned coffee shop and laundromat, 2) Community event and co-working space to satisfy the unmet need for local office and event venues, and 3) A space for pharmacy lockers to meet the demand for residents who, in the face of several recent store closures, face extended commutes to their nearest pharmacy.


  • ChiFresh Kitchen, Greater Grand Crossing: A Black-women-owned worker cooperative delivering freshly prepared meals is redeveloping a vacant building to expand its three lines of business, including retail, catering and food service contracting. ChiFresh Kitchen also plans to offer subsidized cold storage space to budding community organizations addressing food insecurity in the area.


  • Inner City Entertainment, South Shore: A social enterprise led by two Black women will transform a vacant building into a dining and entertainment experience, featuring: 1) Cinegrill, a seven-screen, dine-in cinema with a total capacity of 350 people, 2) Odessa's Kitchen, a Creole-themed restaurant and retail marketplace, 3) AJ's, an eight-lane, boutique bowling and billiards center, and 4) Penthouse71, a rooftop event space for up to 200 guests.


  • Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, Maywood, Ill.: The Village of Maywood is a food desert, but the cost of a build-out for a new grocery store has been identified as prohibitive to opening a store to serve the community. The grant will support the build-out of newly constructed commercial space inside an affordable housing complex to house a grocery store.


  • Justice of the Pies, Avalon Park: A successful, socially conscious Black-woman-owned business seeks to scale its operations by activating a vacant building with a production kitchen, retail counter and dine-in seating area, demonstration kitchen for culinary workshops, and workforce development and educational programming.


  • Latinos Progresando, South Lawndale: Latinos Progresando is acquiring and rehabbing a former Chicago Public Library branch that has been vacant since 2009, restoring it to its original community service purpose. The building will house a health clinic operated by Esperanza Health Centers, a federally qualified health center, and an after school program run by Lincoln Park Zoo. Additional services will include job training, business development, legal and social services.


  • North Lawndale Employment Network, North Lawndale: The campus development will bring together programs currently delivered at four separate locations. The campus will include a range of community-serving and economic development-related uses, including expanded classrooms, industry-specific training rooms, and computer labs; production and retail space for NLEN's Sweet Beginnings LLC honey products social enterprise; a Financial Opportunity Center; a new retail bank branch; a community meeting room, peace garden, and garden plaza.


  • PODER Headquarters, Gage Park: The adaptive reuse project will serve as an immigrant integration and job training center, including English language and workforce development programming and other community and City of Chicago partner resources.


  • Urban Core, South Shore: The project will provide health and wellness services by restoring a vacant building. The anchor storefront will be a yoga studio, with the remaining storefronts consisting of businesses that support the organization's mission of healthy living.


  • Xquina Incubator and Café, South Lawndale: The business incubator will positively impact the community by providing an open, accessible, and inclusive learning environment through programming and coaching that is both adaptable and culturally relevant. Public and private capital will redevelop approximately 13 thousand square feet of commercial retail, including a business incubator, co-working office, local cafe, and shared commercial kitchen.
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.