If food is fuel for the body, mentorship is nourishment for the soul.

“The beauty of today, and what I love, is it’s all run by young people,” Matt DeMateo of New Life Centers of Chicago said.

The New Life Center food pantry in Little Village was feeding 100 families a week before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Since then, the pantry has been feeding 10,000 families a week.

“We were able to hire 15 people early in the pandemic. We used our PPE money and hired them at $25 an hour because for many of them, that was the only income their family had. And then we kept them,” DeMateo said.

DeMateo said his organization made a specific choice to hire 18-to-24-year-olds from the community, some of whom he’d know for years through a mentorship program.

Diana Franco has been helping since she was 13. Now at the age of 20, she’s the lead administrator for the entire food pantry, essentially running her own grocery business.

“When I come I don’t feel like coming to a job. I love doing this. I wake up happy to come here,” Franco said.

Across Chicago, businesses have found they can tap into talent from every corner of the city.

“We believe very deeply that talent is distributed evenly in the world but opportunity is not,” Relativity CEO Matt Gamson said.

Relativity is a legal technology firm that has a fellows program, tapping 12 high school graduates from Chicago’s South and West Sides each year.

It’s a pipeline that has proven results after just a few months of training.

“We committed to them a full-time job and pay of $50,000 or more, which for many folks is life-changing, self-supporting income,” Gamson said.

In Little Village, where the pain of loss from the pandemic is palpable, the knowledge of investing in young people can be just as filling, and fulfilling as a hearty meal.

“They’re going to get all kinds of different life skills from here, they’re going to be able to bounce into different careers. That’s the goal. And this can be the starting point,” DeMateo said.

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board has been exploring that question with a series focused on how to reach disconnected young people. Read more on their website here 

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