In recognition of National Volunteer week, YWCA Evanston/North Shore volunteer Alex Piper was honored with an Outstanding Evanston Volunteer Award on Tuesday evening at a reception sponsored by the City of Evanston, Evanston Township High School, the Evanston Community Foundation and Northwestern University. Karen Singer, President/CEO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, praised Piper’s contributions to the YWCA, calling her “a testament to the saying ‘use what you have to help others’.” Piper brings her talent for cooking, her interest in health and nutrition, and her passion for helping others to the women at Mary Lou’s Place, the domestic violence shelter for women and their children operated by the YWCA Evanston/North Shore.
Because of her own interest in healthy food, Piper wanted to share her passion for healthy cooking with the women and children at the Shelter, many of whom arrive with nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. Piper cooks with the women, who appear to love their time with her, both because she interacts with them without prejudice or judgment, and because they can see how much she enjoys sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for food with them. Several years ago, when the shelter kitchen was being renovated, she stepped in and coordinated volunteer help to prepare dinner for the women and children weekly for a few months.
Piper, a (retired) chef and caterer, focuses on simple, easily replicable recipes that can feed a family on a budget. Wanting the women to be able to continue cooking after they leave the shelter, she solicits donations from friends and neighbors for slow cookers and slow cooker cookbooks, which each participating woman now receives when she finishes her Shelter stay. “One of the things I am the most thankful for,” says Piper, “is the support I have gotten from my friends and neighbors for my cooking, crock pots and gardening. If not for the many women signing on to participate in my cooking sessions, I would not have the funds to cook at the YWCA. What gives me so much strength in my endeavors is all the women participating in this way towards my project.”
Piper also received donations from The Garden Club of Evanston and The Lincolnwood Garden Club which funded the seeds, plants and supplies to turn the YWCA’s raised beds into a nutritional vegetable garden. Last summer, Shelter residents cooked with the herbs and vegetables that were harvested from the garden, a venture so successful that the YWCA received a grant from CoBank in the fall to expand their urban garden initiative.
In order to work with Shelter clients, Piper completed the 40-hour Domestic Violence training required of all YWCA volunteers working in direct service. She credits the training with giving her perspective on the unique circumstances and issues facing the women she loves to work with. Through the healing power of food, and the most basic act of cooking and feeding one’s self and family, she hopes to help the women feel safe and heal from the violence in their lives. Says Piper, “I believe that there is something universally shared when gathering with women to prepare and eat meals together, and I feel privileged to share time with them and to lend my skills to an organization that does so much for women in need.”