BUDGET CRUSHED: This is part of an ongoing series analyzing how the state’s nearly financial crisis has affected West Side residents.
As the state slogs through another holiday season crippled by Springfield’s financial woes, which have forced most social service organizations across Illinois to make deep budget cuts, one Austin entrepreneur witnesses the effects of that political inertia regularly.
“One time, someone called and told me her food stamps were late because they were doing something at the government offices,” said Patty Ringo, 51, the co-director of the culinary ministry at Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave. in Austin, and the founder of a catering company-turned-nonprofit called Katr2u.
“She said that she didn’t have any food in the house. I can tell you, that’s a big problem in the community because a lot of times people aren’t employed, some don’t have skills or can afford to go back to school so they’re lacking,” said Ringo in a recent interview. “Other are dealing with homelessness. So it becomes a challenge overall, but [the answer] starts with us.”
Ringo said that she’s a testament of how, despite the dearth of public and private resources in areas like the West Side, citizens have it within themselves to surmount society’s obstacles — if only they work together. Ringo said she’s achieved many of her own personal milestones with the critical backing of her church.
“Back in the day, we didn’t leave it up to anyone else,” Ringo said. “We did for ourselves. We helped each other and we have to have that same mentality in order for us to make it to the next level.”
Ringo’s first cooking job was in a nursing home facility. She was 13 years old. The entrepreneur said the idea of working for herself came from divine inspiration and was cultivated at Greater St. John.
“The church puts on seminars and workshops in home ownership, economic empowerment and other areas that are important to sustaining our community,” she said. “So, those definitely motivated and enlightened me. There’s a kaleidoscope of ideas and experiences that you can have, but exposure is the key.”
In addition to information-gathering, Ringo said her church provided her with the platform to launch her own enterprise. After joining the church in 2003, she began volunteering with its culinary ministry and working as a cook in the afterschool program. In 2005, she was asked to run the ministry.
“In 2006, the Lord spoke to me and gave me Katr2u,” Ringo recalled. “At the time, the ministry was blossoming and I was helping young people who had come asking me to cook, because they liked my food. That spiraled into me working with the mothers and single women of the church. I started encouraging them to acquire their education and we started creating this wonderful experience and next thing you know I was running the ministry full-time.”
Ringo said she and the five people who help operate the culinary ministry have served their soulful southern cuisine to prominent local activists, aldermen, governors and just about everyone in between.
“The church works collaboratively with our missionary ministries, our young adult ministry and our outreach ministry to provide Thanksgiving meals and feed the homeless,” Ringo said. “We also go out to various nonprofits like Ronald McDonald House and intuitions like that to cook for families who are staying at the house. We also work with the Chicago Food Depository and sometimes help distribute food during the church’s annual community festival.”
Earlier this month, Ringo’s catering company was recognized by the Leaders Network — a faith-based social justice organization that is co-chaired by Greater St. John’s pastor, Rev. Ira Acree — as a business of the month.
The honor, said Ringo, is just another example of the community uplifting its own — a philosophy she lives by.
“It makes me proud to be part of St. John, part of Austin and part of the lives of people we’ve helped,” Ringo said.
Angela Parker, a lifelong member of Greater St. John and a culinary ministry volunteer, wants to follow in Ringo’s footsteps. When Parker was applying for a seasonal cooking position at a resort in Alaska, she leaned on her mentor for a reference.
“I was able to tell them exactly what she is capable of doing in terms of food service management and she secured that job,” Ringo said. “If we can do that for just one person in the community, we can truly make a difference.”
Parker, 24, said that Ringo has been encouraging her to start a catering company of her own. That homegrown advice and mentorship, Parker said, has been reinforced by her church’s monetary support. She said she received around $2,000 in scholarship money to go college. After earning her associate’s degree in business administration, she attended culinary school.
“[Patti Ringo] has been encouraging me to go out and start my own business and that’s definitely something I’ve been working on,” Parker said. “I want to purchase a food truck soon, but in the meantime I’ve been catering different events and cooking for people who come asking for food — small things like that.”
For Ringo, it’s all part of virtuous cycle of mutual support that she wants to be her legacy.
“I want to leave a lasting legacy for my grandchildren,” she said. “That’s vital to me. I want to make sure that they know that they have access to the finest things in life and that they’re not limited based on where they live.”