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Inspiration Cafe

Located in Uptown on Chicago’s north side, Inspiration Cafe provides restaurant-style meals, case management, support groups, life-skills training, financial assistance and other services to homeless men and women in a therapeutic community that promotes dignity and respect.

Guests of the Cafe have access to the full range of Inspiration Corporation’s programs, including employment training and career services, voice mail, and subsidized housing. Inspiration Cafe’s goal is to help men and women overcome the causes of their homelessness and find stability by securing income and affordable housing.

Inspiration Cafe was founded in 1989 by Lisa Nigro, a Chicago police officer who began searching for a personal response to the homelessness she encountered in Uptown. She began by loading up a red wagon with sandwiches and coffee to distribute to homeless individuals on the streets. 

Our Mission

In an atmosphere of dignity and respect, Inspiration Corporation helps people who are affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through the provision of social services, employment training and placement, and housing.

Our History

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 homeless men and women 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 one dollar. 

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 restaurant skills training program Cafe Too. 

Meanwhile, in other parts of town, The Living Room Cafe and The Employment Project were founded as organizations to serve Chicagoans affected by homelessness and poverty.  The Living Room Cafe, created by Jennifer Kihm, a former intern at Inspiration Cafe, offered meals and supportive services to the Woodlawn community on Chicago’s South Side.  The Employment Project, begun by Luke Weisberg, provided homeless and low-income Chicagoans with employment training, career counseling and job placement.  For several years, Inspiration Cafe, The Living Room Cafe and The Employment Project served Chicago’s homeless population side by side. 

As they grew, these organizations dreamed of creating a greater impact in the community.  In 2003, The Living Room Cafe and Inspiration Cafe joined together to become Inspiration Corporation, with the goal of providing meals and supportive services with streamlined and efficient administration.  As Inspiration Corporation, our volunteers and staff continued to provide the best services possible to Chicagoans in need.

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 our guests and participants.  By saving on administrative and fundraising costs, Inspiration Corporation could focus more resources on our mission:  leading homeless men and women towards self-sufficiency.

Later in 2005, Inspiration Corporation celebrated the opening of the Cafe Too restaurant and training center.  At Cafe Too, culinary students could hone their skills in a real restaurant and enter the workforce with the experience and confidence needed to succeed.  With Cafe Too, we’ve combined the core values from our past – great food and a commitment to improving lives.

In 2006, Karen Skalitzky, a long-time volunteer with Inspiration Corporation, wrote a book of great sensitivity and power, A Recipe for Hope: Stories of Transformation by People Struggling with Homelessness. In moving chapters punctuated with recipes from some of Chicago’s leading chefs, the book shares first-person accounts of the struggles and triumphs of many of the people who have walked through the doors of Inspiration Cafe and The Living Room Cafe and found the courage to transform their lives.

Today, Inspiration Corporation has grown to serve 2,500 individuals a year by providing meals, supportive services, housing, employment preparation and vocational training, and free voice mail – serving as a catalyst for self-reliance.

Visit their website for TONS of information and how you can support Lisa!

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