Beyond Vassar

Vassar Volunteers at Chicago's Inspiration Cafe

By Jonathan Marshall '85

The homeless men and women could smell something happening, something delicious, like sizzling garlic and tomato sauce and sautéed vegetables. The two dozen hungry guests in the Inspiration Cafe's cozy dining room glanced up as they chatted, wondering what the chefs of the Chicago Vassar Club would serve them that Saturday evening.

They were not disappointed. Out of the cafe's kitchen came three lasagnas prepared by Ardis Berghoff ’87, Jayne Lee Irvin ’87, and Molly Humphreys Waite ’64. And spaghetti served with tomatoes, Italian sausage, green peppers, and mushrooms, courtesy of Amy Granzin ’91. And steamed broccoli and cauliflower sprinkled with cheese cooked by Marion Morse Myers ’65. And garlic bread fixed by Abbe and Aaron Plotnick ’86. And lemon cookies baked by Sarah Crawford ’89.

For more than three years, Chicago Vassar Club members have gathered once a month to make similar dinners for the Inspiration Cafe. The Vassar volunteers come to Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood to cook and serve meals to women and men who are pulling their lives together after living on the streets. In addition to helping the community, club members renew their ties with Vassar and make new friends.

"There’s nothing like cooking with someone to get to know them," said Marion Myers, who chairs the club’s community services committee.

The Inspiration Cafe serves more than 14,000 breakfasts and dinners a year to homeless men and women in a friendly, relaxing setting. Volunteers greet the guests by name and take their orders as if they were dining in a restaurant. The cafe also helps guests find housing and job training, holds computer classes, and organizes trips to plays, concerts, and museums.

The Vassar meals at the café are usually creative feasts. Entrees have included paella, barbecued chicken, beef stroganoff, and ratatouille. Vegetables, bread, and dessert are always included. During and after meals, Vassar volunteers often visit with the homeless guests.

"The conversations are amazingly helpful to the guests," said Chad Wolbrink, the cafe's coordinator of volunteers. "When they’re out on the street, they’re ignored every single minute of the day because they’re homeless, but when they’re in the cafe, they’re somebody who’s valued and respected."

The community service project is only part of the Chicago Vassar Club's busy agenda. Each year the club raises more than $40,000 for scholarships through its benefit dinner and auction. The club also recruits and interviews prospective Vassar students, hosts career-networking gatherings, and sponsors academic, artistic, and family events.

Loree Sandler ’86, a Chicago Vassar Club board member, launched the community service project in 1997. "I wanted to find a way to help the community while also fostering stronger friendships among club members," Sandler said. Volunteers were recruited through mailings, the club’s newsletter, and signup sheets at events.

The result is a dedicated group of cooks and servers. After a recent lasagna dinner, Abbe Plotnick asked, "What should we make next time?"

The response was immediate. "I’ll make a pork roast," Marion Myers said.

"Why don’t we bring scalloped potatoes?" Aaron Plotnick suggested.

"I can do a green bean casserole," Ardis Berghoff said.

And another Vassar feast was born.