While many Chicago-based nonprofit organizations such as CeaseFire have seen their state funding drastically curtailed in the wake of the recent economic downturn, A Hand Up Recovery Home, located at 4032 W. Van Buren, has managed to stay afloat behind its founder Wilbert Cook.

The program, which began in 2005, assists substance-abusers in finding counseling services and helps ex-offenders in their re-entry process by giving them job training and computer skill enhancement. Clients are allowed to live at the facility for up to 18 months although they would be expected to pay rent on a sliding scale, depending on their financial situation.

Cook says one of the disadvantages ex-offenders face when seeking employment following incarceration is that they can obtain mostly low-paying labor jobs that don’t give them the chance to utilize any special skills.

“Skill training is very important to re-entry because it puts them in a position to move onto the next phase of their lives,” said Cook. However, despite the passing of the Second Chance Act last April, some programs seeking to aid ex-offenders have suffered funding shortfalls in recent months due to the sagging economy.

“I think two reasons we’ve continued to flourish during these difficult times are the fact that we have received the support of Bethany-Advocate Community Health Fund, which donated $30,000 to our operational costs last year. Another is that I have a tremendous staff that would probably do this work for free if they had to,” said Cook, noting that his staff of six regulars probably work as many as 25 hours per week but accept bi-weekly salaries for half that number of hours.

Cook has been involved in community organizing since the early 1990s, when he began working for the non-profit organization Better Boys Foundation, where he mentored young men who were wards of the state. It closed in 1997-although it later opened as BBF Family Services-at which point Cook decided to start his own non-profit organization. Getting it off the ground, however, proved to be problematic.

“My early attempts to apply for state grants were not very fortuitous,” said Cook. “Then a friend of mine told me about a class that was being offered through the Mount Sinai Community Institute that would instruct aspiring entrepreneurs on business ownership. I saw it as a great opportunity to get the business started.”

Following the class, Cook utilized connections to apply both for state certification and funding, though it was a lengthy process.

“It took about four years to actually receive the grant,” said Cook. “However, once funding was in place, I wanted to model it in a way that allowed ex-offenders the opportunity to transition into the job market as prepared as they can be.”

Even with the recent grant from Bethany, Cook faces an exceptionally tight budget and has been unable to expand the organization beyond serving a maximum of 10 clients at a time.

“I’ve wanted to expand for a while, but because of the resources available, it really hasn’t been possible,” said Cook, who added that Hand Up was originally intended to address the needs of troubled youth and ex-offenders, but it became primarily focused on ex-offenders as the original plan proved too costly.

Along with serving as director of Hand Up, the 44-year-old also works as an appraisal analyst for the Cook County Assessor’s Office, serves as vice president of the West Side NAACP and attends Divinity Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.