Pandemic Empowers Partnerships: In Evanston, Covid-19 Brings Out Our Best

Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club connects "Taste of Evanston" partner NaKorn with "Taste" beneficiary Reba Place Development Corporation to support residents who live in RPDC's affordable-housing units.


On Friday, March 20, best friends Sam Rattanopas and Mina Sudsaard were gearing up, as usual, for a busy night at NaKorn, their popular four-year-old Thai restaurant on Orrington Street. But everything changed that day when Governor Pritzker announced Illinois' Covid-19 Stay-at-Home order and NaKorn--like so many other businesses--was forced to close its doors. Their daily sales dropped more than 90 percent overnight.


"It hit us hard," NaKorn co-owner Sam told me. "We've been working so hard since we opened, and we finally turned the corner towards profitability in 2019."


But rather than feel sorry for themselves, Sam said, they asked, “What can we do to help?”


They still had their staff to pay and recognized that life would become far more difficult for Evanstonians--particularly older residents, economically disadvantaged residents, and healthcare workers. So they started a GoFundMe to purchase supplies and keep their workers employed.


That night, NaKorn prepared and delivered 76 free meals to the residents at Evanston's Jacob Blake Manor, a subsidized housing community for seniors.


Then, this past Friday, with support from members of the Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club (ELRC) and initiated by member Linda Gerber, the restaurant made and delivered meals to the 90 residents of Reba Place Development Corporations’ (RPDC) two apartment buildings--House of Peace and Seward--which provide renovated, affordable-housing units to people with lower incomes at half the market rent.


"We made one of my favorite dishes growing up called Khao Nā Kai," said Sam. "It's a chicken in gravy over rice. We served it with steamed vegetables and sautéed French mushrooms. For dessert, we presented salted caramel banana bread, which is one of the favorites in our dining room."


Gloved and masked, ELRC President Helen Oloroso, and members Jean Saunders, MaLu Simon, Bill Glader, and Linda, helped NaKorn deliver the individually wrapped meals. Courtney Coates and Beking Joassaint were among the residents grateful for the gesture.


Courtney, a single mom of two daughters, 11 and 13, is working toward her Masters in social work while holding down a part-time job as office manager for Reba Place Church. Now she’s doing it all from home.


"They'd asked us to put a sign on our door with the number of meals we needed," Courtney, told me via FaceTime on Saturday.


"They rang the bell, I yelled out, 'I'm here,'' and they left the meals on the mat," Courtney said, her voice shaking with emotion. "As they left, I yelled after them, 'Thank you!'"

With her young daughters now home all day and their specific needs--both have asthma--an additional worry, Courtney says she's been very anxious.


"It's been really, really difficult to keep up with all the different hats I wear and try to stay sane," she said. "If I can get everybody fed, that's my best bet, but it's hard because I want to do well in my classes and get my work done so I can get paid."


Courtney, who came to Evanston seven years ago from Fillmore, a small Illinois town, says she's usually the one caring for her friends, her students, and her daughters. She also worries about her elderly parents who still live in Fillmore.


"I just really appreciate the restaurant owners thinking about trying to help somebody else," she said. "Sometimes I don't realize how much I need that care and support until somebody decides to do it and I didn't even have to ask for it."


With the stay-at-home order, Joassaint, a photographer specializing in portraits and events who was booked for the next several months, found his camera quiet, his calendar clear and his income evaporate--all at shutter-speed.


"The fact that you can't get close to anyone has affected me in all ways possible,” he told me. “Not being able to earn an income has really put stress on how I eat. Right now my life is frozen in time.”


Joassaint, who graduated from Evanston Township High School (ETHS) in 1999, said he really appreciated the meal.


“It's so thoughtful that there are people out there making a difference, and there are people worse off than I am," he said. “This is going to be a struggle for a really long time.”

ELRC connected NaKorn with Reba Place residents because the club has had an ongoing relationship with both: Sam and Mina's cuisine is a staple at the Club's annual summertime Taste of Evanston, and the affordable-housing organization benefits from funds raised at the event.


"Our signature commitment is to housing insecurity in Evanston," Helen explained. “I feel anguish over the fact that for some of the residents, a meal like this one is a necessity for survival. The far greater issue is how people will survive as this shutdown continues.”

Courtney echoed that concern. Despite her own small family's challenges, she says she's worried for her upstairs neighbors whom, she told me, are both restaurant workers who have been laid off.


"They live paycheck to paycheck, and have a young child in the house," she said.

And so do NaKorn's staff, which is why Sam and Mina are committed to keeping them working by serving those in need-- and to opening soon on weekends with delivered family dinners.


"That will allow us to serve our patrons and, most important, pay our staff *something,*" she said. "Because Buddha said, 'Give, even if you only have a little.'"


As for the folks at Lighthouse Rotary, they're about to make a $2,000 donation to the Evanston Community Foundation's Covid-19 Rapid Response Task Force and reviewing applications from community organizations in need of financial support. Their board met earlier today to consider how to retool this year's "Taste of Evanston," so they can continue to provide assistance, not only to the community, but also to the very restaurants that have so generously contributed food for the "Taste."


“We have been a major force in community service and philanthropy in Evanston for 35 years, but we’ve never faced a challenge anything like this,” said Helen. ____________

How can YOU help?


NAKORN

-- To donate to NaKorn's GoFundMe.

-- Follow them here to find out about weekend meals for purchase.


EVANSTON LIGHTHOUSE ROTARY CLUB

-- Donate to the Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club Foundation

-- Order from Taste of Evanston partner restaurants.


ECF'S COVID-19 RAPID RESPONSE TASK FORCE

Donate here.

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