What started out as a small act of compassion has grown into one of the nation’s largest, all-encompassing church outreach operations found under one roof.
In 1981, Willow Creek member, George Lindholm, learned about a need. A family attending the church did not have enough food to get by, so he quietly offered bags of groceries to them in the parking lot after weekly services. This grew into a food pantry stocked by people in the congregation who brought bags of groceries to the church twice a year. They left the bags behind their cars in the parking lot after weekend services to be picked up and delivered to the food pantry. Today, this one-man ministry has grown into a volunteer army of 2,000 who are preparing to operate the new and expanded Willow Creek Care Center.
But will people come, once the new Care Center is built? The answer is yes. The guests (as Willow Creek calls them), most of whom live within a 20-or-so mile radius of Barrington, look to Willow Creek and the wider network of Barrington churches for support and guidance. And the number of those who need help is expanding.
Since 2005, the increase in the number of Barrington District 220 students who qualify for the mandated free-and-reduced school lunch program has more than doubled, rising from 8.4 percent to 17.4 percent, while the total district enrollment has remained the same. The current Willow Creek Care Center location serves 17,000 unique families per year, providing food, clothing, legal help, transportation, health services, and more. Yet, the needs of Willow Creek’s guests have twice outgrown its previous Care Center facilities.
Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ vision for a new, larger Care Center comes to life on June 3, 2013, when the 60,000 sq. ft. Care Center building on Willow Creek’s South Barrington campus opens its doors for the first time. The facility will support an amazing array of staff, volunteers, and sustainable resources that are available to meet immediate and critical human needs.
At the heart of Hybels’ vision is a deep desire for Willow Creek members and attenders to do their part—to provide support to anyone who needs it in any way they can, and to provide an unforgettable experience that helps to restore a guest’s dignity and offers a newfound sense of hope.
When Willow Creek opened the doors to its first care center in Hoffman Estates, it became clear that there was far more pain in the community than anticipated. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels recalls the eye-opening moment when he arrived at the center and saw that all the chairs were full, and there was still a line of people out the door.
“I’m not sure the average person who lives in Inverness, Barrington, or Barrington Hills would believe there could be 100 people standing in line at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night because they can’t put food on their table. Or that two miles from downtown Barrington there are people with no hope and nowhere to turn. Residents in the wider Barrington community don’t have a full awareness of how many people, who live within a 20-minute radius of our beautiful community, are desperate for hope.”
The inability to provide for the basic needs of one’s family can chip away at dignity. And seeing the overwhelming number of people turning to the Care Center for help became a driving factor behind building an environment that was dignified.
“We see, feel, and touch the lives of people every day,” Hybels said. “When someone is already feeling helpless—when they come our way—we want them to feel loved, respected, and we want the environment in which they are going to receive care to bring value to them.”
Hybels is quick to state that the Care Center operation is not a membership drive or an attempt to increase attendance at the church. The only requirement is to be in need.
“A lot of us who have lived on the more affluent side of the tracks don’t even know the indignity encountered by guests who have to look at their kids and say, ‘I know you’ve worn that shirt everyday to school this week, but we can’t afford to buy anything new,’” Hybels said. “We don’t know the feelings associated with people who have, in many cases and through no fault of their own, had a medical issue, lost a job, or experienced a catastrophic event in their life, and they have nowhere to turn—no one who can help. Most of us in Barrington have friends who are affluent. We have contacts, we know dozens of people who would loan us their car, who would give us the shirt off their back. But there are a lot of people in our community who have no contacts, and no support systems. That’s a truly helpless feeling.”
Hybels and his staff want the Care Center to be a stepping stone for people facing a difficult season in their life. Yet, they want to extend compassion to others responsibly, and without being overly guarded. When someone walks into the Care Center, they must have a photo ID and proof of their current address. Some services require an assessment process before guests can receive help. This is to ensure the services being provided are going to those who are really in need.
Some ask Hybels if he thinks people will take advantage of the church’s compassion.
“I would rather be guilty of extending too much compassion than too little. I never want to stand before God, who tipped the scales totally in my direction and gave me His unlimited grace, and hear Him say that I withheld it from someone else. I will gladly take the rap for giving too much compassion.”
People love Barrington. They wouldn’t live here if they didn’t, but Hybels feels we live in a community where we may not see need, because we don’t encounter it.
“We don’t often come into contact with many people who feel marginalized,” said Hybels. “We live in beautiful homes, we work in beautiful environments, and we vacation in beautiful places. People say, ‘I have a heart to help, but I never come across people who really need it.’ At the Care Center, we are trying to be a sustainable source of hope for people who don’t have access to the things they need.”
Hybels says every person who comes into the Care Center will, at some point, have a conversation with a trained volunteer or staff member to discuss what contributed to their time of need. What might seem like a minor event can trigger a domino effect that leads to job loss, which can lead to losing the ability to put food on the table and even losing shelter.
“If we see that people are being consistently irresponsible with the choices they are making, we raise our level of concern and speak into their lives with love and direct them to a new set of choices they can pursue,” said Hybels.
Because people in hopeless situations don’t easily forget the time when someone helped them out, Hybels feels this can lead to transformation—transformation that ultimately lessens the risk of dependency on the Care Center.
“I don’t think you ever forget when you are in a nearly helpless or hopeless situation and someone treats you with dignity,” he said. “I think you feel a connection with those people and you start asking ‘what was driving their generosity toward me?’ Hopefully that leads them to say, ‘I want to become a person like that when I get on my feet again.’”
Six years ago, Willow Creek pulled together all its ministries involved in helping to meet tangible needs on both a local and global level. It became one ministry called Compassion & Justice, which oversees the Care Center.
“Our hope is that we can truly be the church in our own community and partner with local churches in other under-resourced areas around the country,” said Heather Larson, director of Compassion & Justice. “It is the church’s job to be engaged in its community.”
When the pastor of a partner church in South Africa asked his congregation, “if our church were to close its doors, would the community even notice?” it changed the way his church did ministry. Larson believes we should be asking the same question in our own community.
The whole notion of building a Care Center started when the church celebrated its 35th anniversary. Hybels posed the question, “If we could launch anything out of this anniversary, what would we want to do?”
Hybels was the first to mention the idea of a new Care Center. What if the church could bring everything the Care Center offered together in one place?
Larson and the team felt strongly that this project needed to be about building a bridge to neighbors in need, helping them to know that they are welcome inside Willow Creek's doors anytime. Larson stresses that the church doesn’t want to duplicate existing community services, but instead, to partner with organizations that are doing similar things.
“We are not starting from scratch; we have been doing this for decades, and have really strong connections with the organizations we work with around the community,” says Larson. “We want to lift up and encourage what they are doing and partner with them—not re-create something that someone is already doing really well.”
While the Care Center’s doors haven’t opened yet, word is spreading and numerous churches have already reached out and asked how they can do something similar.
In 2012, the Care Center’s food pantry rescued two million pounds of food from local grocers and food suppliers—food that would have been thrown out—and distributed 4.7 million pounds of food to families in need.
Volunteer “gleaners” at the Care Center travel to area grocery stores or wholesale partners to pick up donated foods. Jewel, on Main St. in Barrington and on Palatine Rd., along with Heinen’s and many others, have been generous with food donations. While most of the groceries in the food pantry are donated, Willow does buy a percentage of groceries from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a nonprofit food distribution and training center that distributes food through a network of 650 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters in Cook County. Willow Creek’s onsite Giving Garden provides in-season produce.
But Willow Creek’s Care Center isn’t just about giving away food. “We are no longer just giving out a ton of food,” said Director of the Care Center, Josie Guth. “We serve the whole person—physically, mentally, and spiritually.” The opening of the new Care Center will enable the church to serve guests in a new way.
“We want to be about creating services that address the underlying reasons people need to use the Care Center,” said Guth. “We are about transformation and helping someone get beyond their current situation.”
“By encouraging our volunteers to [uncover] why families are coming to the Care Center, we can lessen the risk of dependency and help them form a plan,” said Guth.
“Assessing the person as an individual allows us to let the guests know we are there for them. We want to be the church to you,” said Nicole Burt, director of operations for the Care Center. “We want to be about creating movement and accountability.”
When the economy crashed in 2005, the Care Center saw a 307 percent increase in visitors, yet the donations of food and number of volunteers kept pace with the increased demand. While needs rose, so did donations from local businesses (685 percent) and volunteer numbers increased by 400 percent. Currently, the Care Center has about 2,000 volunteers.
“Volunteers are the hallmark of our operation,” said Burt. “When the new Care Center opens, there will be a need for more.”
In the new Care Center, a full-choice food pantry will allow guests to make their own dietary selections. “Giving someone dignity is our gold standard. When people are able to select the grocery items they want, they feel honored,” said Burt.
The food pantry has been introducing the concept of pagers to the Care Center so the process of helping guests is more organized. “It broke my heart to know that some guests at the Care Center had never even seen a pager before,” said Burt. “When I walk into a restaurant and I’m handed a pager, I take it for granted. Some of our guests have never had that experience, until now.”
The Care Center holds to three core values – dignity, hope, and transformation.
And while there is no requirement that a guest be a member of Willow Creek in order to use the services of the Care Center, a volunteer is always willing to pray with them.
Everyone involved in the Care Center has had experiences and heard stories that changed their lives. “When you give back, you’re the one who ends up being changed,” said Burt. “Regardless of the motivation, people want to give back. And it leads to mutual transformation.”
“As Christians, we want to build a relationship with others and introduce them to the concept of Christianity. It’s the best way to understand what a relationship with Christ looks like,” said Susan DeLay, director of media relations at Willow Creek. “When people come to the Care Center for help, we want them to feel like they came to the right place,” said DeLay. “The church is more than a building; it’s people who are the hands and feet of Jesus.”
In 1988, C.A.R.S. (Christian Auto Repairmen Serving) was born. “We never planned to have a C.A.R.S. ministry,” said Dan Hybels, “but the opportunity fell into our laps.”
When Hybels and Doug McAllister, owner of Douglas Automotive in Barrington and Crystal Lake, were busy working on a grounds crew at the South Barrington campus, a woman approached and asked if they knew anything about cars. She had been told she needed extensive repair work on her vehicle and she couldn’t afford to pay for unnecessary repairs. They offered to fix her car for free. “We knew a lot of guys who liked tinkering with cars,” said Hybels. That’s how C.A.R.S. was born. McAllister was the one who came up with the clever title for the ministry.
“Willow is one of the first to do a ministry like this,” said Hybels. Most charitable organizations take in cars and sell them for parts or scrap. C.A.R.S. does more. “By repairing (when possible) donated vehicles, we can give reliable cars to qualified people with transportation needs.” Other churches in the U.S. and outside of the country have sought advice on how to start their own C.A.R.S.-type ministry.
“Germany sends 20-30 people to Willow’s Global Leadership Summit each year, and while they’re here, they always take a tour of C.A.R.S. to learn how it operates and why the ministry model works so well,” said Hybels.
“People are often under the impression that the ministry just gives away cars,” says Dave Cimo, director of C.A.R.S. The ministry also does car repairs. “Because we don’t know the circumstances behind why someone doesn’t have a car, every person seeking help to meet their transportation needs must go through an assessment process to see if they qualify for a vehicle." This process also allows Cimo and his team to find out if there are other ways they can be of service to those in need. “Services exist, but people may not know about them because they don’t have access to the network of these resources,” said Cimo.
When the C.A.R.S. ministry moves back on campus, its focus will be on car repairs. “There is always a need for volunteers to help with the repairs,” said Hybels. “We have teams that work in the evenings and on weekends. One skilled mechanic serves alongside his teenaged son.”
Cimo recalls a man who came to the Care Center’s food pantry with his four-year-old daughter. While he was there, he happened to ask if there was a place to get his car fixed because his brakes weren’t working. The man had been using his emergency brake to turn corners, slow down, and stop. “We were able to help him,” said Cimo.
When the new Care Center opens, it will include a new service—clothing for kids. In the past year, volunteers have been getting donated clothes sorted, washed, and staged so when the new building is ready, the store can be set up for guests. Jorie Johnson, director of this new clothing team, started as a volunteer at the food pantry four years ago, and the experience changed her life. “My heart really beats for those who are less fortunate, and who don’t have a voice.”
Shortly after starting to volunteer at the food pantry, Johnson became a team leader. When the Care Center project started three years ago, she was invited to be part of a team that explored how different ministries around the country operated. “We knew dignity was the most important thing we could offer to families and we created a service that allows us to focus on children’s clothing, and the dignity that new clothes can provide.”
Johnson and her team conducted a clothing gap analysis by talking with school officials, mayors, and community leaders. What they learned was children did not have adequate clothing.
When the new Care Center opens, the clothing store will have gently-used and new items, sizes newborn through children’s 14XL. The Care Center is also taking donations of shoes in any sizes.
The clothing store will have two dressing rooms so kids can try on clothes and pick out what they love. Giving children a choice in their clothing is another way the ministry has built dignity into the mix.
Building dignity and reducing dependency is built into all models of the Care Center service area.
A Compassion & Justice survey revealed employment is the greatest need of the guests visiting the Care Center, followed by health, food, and transportation. Dave Cimo, who runs Health Services, found most guests had no dental or eye insurance, and many had not seen a doctor in a long time simply because they couldn’t afford it.
Cimo and his team explored what services were available in the area that could help guests who could not afford dental and eye care. The search turned up very few options. So, Cimo and his team began seeking volunteer dentists and optometrists.
When the initial response to their search was good, the team began to research information on insurance, sustainability, and how to run a health services clinic.
Right now, the clinic has close to 20 volunteer dentists, 15 hygienists, 15 dental assistants, and two optometrists.
Patients who would like to use the dental and eye clinic must go through a qualification process that requires a guest be at least 18 years old, uninsured, and living at 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Once a patient is qualified, they will be able to use the services at the clinic for one year, paying only $20 per visit. At the end of that year, the patient will be reassessed.
Funding the clinic and receiving equipment was done mostly through donations, offerings, and grants. The Barrington Area Community Foundation awarded a grant to the dental and eye care clinic, the Illinois State Dental Society offered assistance toward the purchase of dental chairs, several suppliers of dental equipment gave grants to the clinic, and the Galvin Foundation also gave a grant.
“Getting dentists, optometrists, and other professionals together, and helping them figure out how a clinic like this would be possible for the church’s Care Center has been both an adventure and a joy,” said Cimo.
With ministries in the Care Center rapidly expanding, more space was needed to accommodate the growing needs. “We have lots of land on this property, so we had plenty of options for where to position the Care Center,” said Scott Troeger, director of Campus Development. “We wanted the building to be very accessible to the guests and our own attenders who want to serve, and also for the building to have a direct connection to the main activity area.”
After seeing the amount of excitement this project generated, Troeger and his team incorporated numerous opportunities for volunteers to use their skills. “This was a unique project,” said Troeger. “Under normal circumstances, we would work with a general contractor who would deal with 90 percent of the project, and 10 percent would involve Willow.”
Willow Creek hired Pepper Construction to take on the project and work on the new construction part of the building. “We have worked with Pepper on several projects,” said Troeger. “They had the right chemistry, the right costs, and we were confident in their experience and the team they would bring with them.”
Mike Powers, a retired professional plumber, donated his time to do all of the plumbing work in the repurposed space of the Care Center. Part of a volunteer team at Willow for many years, he has spent every single day for the last eight months serving and leading individuals on this project. Powers played a key role in creating this amazing space that will bring hope to so many people.
Discussions began in winter 2010 to build a new facility and Willow broke ground for the project in June 2012. The new Care Center will open one year later in June 2013.
“The facilities are a tool to take the Care Center ministry to the next level,” Troeger said.
Despite the economy, people stepped up to help in many ways, by offering resources of time, skill, and money. As a result, Willow Creek's new Care Center project was delivered on time and under budget. Even more remarkable is the fact that it was financed completely in advance of the build-out.
“The new Care Center is a gift to our community,” Pastor Bill Hybels said. “This isn’t one church doing this really cool thing; this is something that has been needed, and it’s a privilege to share it with the entire community. We see it as a gift to people in this wonderful community who are in need.”
Hybels stresses that it’s the people within the church who are giving the gift. “We’re glad that we can offer this gift of hope to people who have fallen on hard times. We’re glad Barrington has such a place. We’re proud of what the Care Center represents for our wider community.”
“We are going to welcome whoever is directed our way,” said Hybels. “It’s an honor to help anyone we can.”
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Executive Director of Samaritan Counseling Center of the Northwest Suburbs, located in Barrington; Former Co-chairwomAn of BAMA
The church is called to respond to the needs of the poor, based on Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. It’s hard to misinterpret that!
It makes perfect sense that churches and other faith-based organizations should be part of the solution of meeting the exigent needs in the local communities, partnering with businesses, governmental bodies, and foundations. Certainly there is a deep history of churches partnering with government in terms of social justice issues, disaster relief, and health care. Many hospitals in this country were started by churches, and are still associated with them.
Willow Creek has always been a leader in mission and outreach, locally as well as internationally, sending folks abroad to dig wells, build schools, and provide aid. It’s not at all surprising that they have envisioned this holistic approach to addressing these needs. Good for them – and us.
I’ve watched God work in Bill Hybels over the 26 years I’ve been in Barrington. He’s not just about winning souls for Jesus anymore. He’s also about helping God’s kingdom come “On Earth, as it is in Heaven.” It seems to me that Bill is trying to make the world God loves just a little better.
Pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in Barrington, co-chairman of BAMA
At its core, BAMA exists to support and encourage pastors in their work and in their life journeys. As a group, we have the means and the resources only to provide short-term and emergency help for people in need. The Community Meal, for example, a meal served free of charge to anyone who comes regardless of need, was born at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, but is now a “movable feast” that is hosted each month by Barrington churches. St. Matthew Lutheran Church has recently teamed up with Barrington Giving Day on a project to provide back-to-school clothes and shoes to children and youth in District 220. The chaplains at Good Shepherd Hospital are spearheading a Mother’s Day diaper drive to help new parents meet their expenses. BAMA’s role in all of these is to distribute publicity, provide volunteer help, and to serve as collection sites for donations.
Our meetings often become eye-opening, stereotype-shattering, awe-inspiring experiences as one or more facet of human need is explored in some depth. BAMA meetings often are attended by representatives from organizations that deal with drug abuse, mental illness, older-adult concerns, palliative care, homelessness, and many other matters that affect this community.
Our [BAMA] meetings often become eye-opening, stereotype-shattering, awe-inspiring experiences as one or more facet of human need is explored in some depth.
— Pastor Rick Carlson
I believe that the role of the Church is three-fold: to be prophetic, protective, and pro-active in the arena of human need. The prophetic voice is needed in order to identify needs. It has been my experience that people of means respond well when made aware of unmet needs. The prophetic voice is needed also to remind all of us that we are connected and inter-connected: what affects one of us affects all of us. Our protective hat is worn to assure some measure of justice for all, particularly for those who are most easily overlooked - children, the elderly, recent arrivals in this country, and others.
Willow Creek is taking a step in faith, demonstrating not only that the church should, but also that the church must do what it can to relieve the suffering of the poor. It is the belief of most BAMA members that spiritual poverty is at the root of many problems in this community. The absence of spiritual depth is an equal-opportunity malady which reveals itself at all social and economic levels in countless ways: bullying, drug abuse, workaholism, marriage infidelity, domestic violence, lavish spending, and alcohol dependence, to name some.
I hope to convey that area clergy are grateful for and supportive of all the work Willow Creek Church does in every arena of ministry.
Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Barrington Hills; former co-chairman of BAMA
The most basic human needs are for the essentials of life, and for many, even they are threatened. Food, shelter, health, and safety are the basics that most of us are able to take for granted most of the time, but when they are threatened, life is extremely hard. A surprising number in our area know these threats on a regular basis. Beyond that is the need for communities of support in which a person’s dignity, hope, and uniqueness can be respected and given room to blossom.
In the Christian tradition, we look to the person of Jesus as a homeless, travelling teacher who invited his friends to come to him in their need. His community provided support, love, and hope, and then sent people out to share that with others. We seek to emulate Jesus and his friends.
The churches of BAMA are very mindful of the needs in our area, and work tirelessly to seek ways to address those needs. The vast majority of our work is done as individual churches, but we all support each other’s ministries and are involved in work together through multi-denominational agencies. I have found Bill Hybels to be very compassionate and humble - he definitely sees the social justice aspect of the Gospel. He greatly values the local church.