The closing of steel production plants was one more development in the recession of 1982 that plunged many south suburban families into financial distress and poverty.
In response to the steel mill closings, which hit south suburban residents particularly hard, Oak Forest resident Loraine Cook founded Together We Cope in 1982. Initially, she was called upon to collect clothing for a family in her church that needed assistance. As more families experienced financial difficulty in her neighborhood, she became known for gathering food and clothing and helping those families. Soon, she had a stockpile of life’s necessities donated by family and friends.
As donations grew and her garage overflowed, Loraine moved the operation several times within Oak Forest, including the basement of Redeemer Lutheran church for a time. Eventually, it became apparent she needed a facility to store the donations and to function as a place from which to distribute them. In 1989, from a storefront on 159th Street in Oak Forest, she continued to help the growing number of families seeking assistance. With a generous heart and a sense of purpose to lend a helping hand, Loraine soon attracted like-minded individuals in the community to donate their time and talents to her project.
Realizing that in order to be eligible for serious funding of her Cope effort, Loraine organized a board of directors in 1989 and applied for incorporation in Illinois. As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, it was possible for her to apply to the federal, state and county government for funding.
Also that year, Together We Cope became a member of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and started placing food orders as cash donations allowed. Even with the continued support of local churches, businesses and neighbors, Together We Cope struggled with increasing demand for food from area families in distress.
In 1993, after another move to larger offices, Loraine established a resale shop adjacent to the Together We Cope office. The resale shop was expected to generate funds for the agency’s programs and also allow clients to shop for clothing and household items at no charge using a credit voucher system. Sadly, Loraine passed away just a few months after the Sensible Resale Shoppe opened. Many wondered what would become of Together We Cope after Loraine’s death, but there were enough dedicated volunteers to continue her mission.
Each year the number of families seeking assistance grew. Likewise, so did donations and volunteers. In 2000, Together We Cope purchased a building at its present location on Oak Park Avenue in Tinley Park and renovated it with donated materials and volunteer labor. With more space, particularly for the food pantry and resale shop operations, Together We Cope was able to accommodate the increasing number of clients. Not only were more clients served, but client programs such as “Back to School” and “Adopt a Family” holiday program broke each previous year’s records for donations and families served. As growth continued, fundraising strategies also escalated.
Together We Cope credits the agency’s success to the invaluable volunteers in the resale shop and food pantry. With the donation of a new Chevy truck in February 2006, resale shop sales soared with the ability to pick up and deliver donated furniture, as did the ability to pick up food from local restaurants and grocery stores that make generous donations weekly.
Bolstered by the success and experience gained through many years of service, in 2006 Together We Cope partnered with South Suburban PADS and started a new program, Families First, funded by HUD. This program serves homeless families with children through a transitional-to-permanent housing program and gives the families intensive case management services. This leap in services allowed all clients of Together We Cope access to employment services, mental health services, life skills and budget training.
What began as a small group of compassionate neighbors has grown into the largest prevention agency in the southwest suburbs.
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