There was plenty to celebrate at the McHenry PADS shelter Thursday.
The common room smelled of turkey and stuffing as trained chefs plated pumpkin pie and pulled warm green beans from the oven.
Thursday marked the first Thanksgiving dinner prepared at the new PADS shelter’s completed commercial-sized kitchen, which provides home-cooked meals to shelter residents and Pioneer Center group homes.
Not only does the kitchen and its staff alleviate cooking responsibilities from Pioneer Center workers, but the kitchen could be used in the future to help train residents with kitchen skills, Pioneer Center Co-CEO Sam Tenuto said.
“The group homes serve people with developmental disabilities, and we also have group homes for people with behavioral health, mental health needs,” Tenuto said. “In those homes, especially in our homes for people with developmental disabilities, staff do all the cooking for them, o this provides a lot of support for our staff.”
The McHenry-based Pioneer Center provides behavioral health, developmental disability and homeless services throughout the county, including those available through the local PADS center.
PADS opened its McHenry shelter in June 2020, serving as a more reliable source of year-round housing for people in need. Previously, the majority of emergency shelter beds in the county operated on a seasonal basis and relied on rotating church sites and volunteers.
The PADS kitchen staff includes chef Tom Gescheidle and architect Bob Surman from the Long Grove kitchen consulting group Culinary Pathways. Assistant Chef Cherstina Romita and Food Service Manager Michael Johnson helped create the shelter’s menu from mostly donated food items and prepared the food that will provide 500 meals each week between the Pioneer Center’s group home and shelter.
“I’ve had maybe three times when people have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much. This is the best meal I’ve had in months.’ And that’s why I’m here,” Romita said.
For now, the shelter still has some meals catered, but a newly designated meal time for residents has brought people together, Surman said.
“I think some friendships are built as well because now people share the meal together...” he said. “We’ve seen people who haven’t been sitting together, all the sudden the two people are playing cards together.”
Staff also hand-delivers meals to the Pioneer Center’s group homes several days each week and hopes to deliver more in the future. The trips have become something that both employees and residents look forward to, Gescheidle said.
“I think we’re breaking up their week in a positive way,” Gescheidle said.
Once the kitchen is capable of providing daily meals throughout the week, the Pioneer Center would like to create a training program that would teach skills to suit people in their homes and potentially lead them to new career opportunities.
“The shelter brought stability to our community as well as those who are homeless,” Tenuto said. “And the meals, the kitchen bring greater stability.”
As the Pioneer Center works to provide additional services to the community, the nonprofit also needs employees and volunteers, Tenuto said.
“Right now, Pioneer Center, just like every other business, is in the middle of a hiring crisis,” Tenuto said.
Additional information about Pioneer Center services and volunteer opportunities can be found online at www.pioneercenter.org.