Ald. Emma Mitts, center, helps Bethel New Life, Rush and Amazon officials, including Bethel CEO Sharif Walker, third from right, cut the ribbon on the new food pantry that opened in December. | Shanel Romain

Sharif Walker, the president and CEO of Bethel New Life, one of the largest social service nonprofits on the West Side, has major ambitions for the organization, which has significantly downsized over the years. Walker’s vision was on display earlier this month with the grand opening of Bethel Daily Bread, a community wellness hub pantry funded by Amazon Fresh.

The new hub, located on Bethel’s 9-acre campus at 4950 W. Thomas St. in Austin, is designed to address the immediate food insecurity issues and long-term health challenges of families in Austin and West Humboldt Park, Bethel officials explained in a statement. Rush University Medical Center is also a partner in the hub.

“When you define health equity, what does that mean? It’s the ability to have a healthy life, but also access to health and healthcare,” said Julia Bassett, the system manager for community health and benefit at Rush. “At Rush, we tend to provide that for our patients and we do that in our clinic but we also need to have access to health outside of our facilities.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) praised Bethel New Life, Rush and Amazon Fresh for the collaboration, adding, “We need to think of those who have not and today we’re sending that message.”

Amazon representatives said the new hub pantry “functions like a traditional food pantry but also employs a community health worker who uses innovative technology to screen for unmet social and medical needs and then instantly connects families to resources and services like transportation assistance, community-based mental health care and SNAP and WIC registration to help sustain improved health.”

Rukiya Curvey Johnson, the vice president for community health equity and engagement at Rush, said the new pantry is an example of effective community collaboration.

“This is what we’re talking about when we think about how we all pull our resources together,” she said. “We can’t solve any of these issues on our own. It’s important for us to bring our partners and resources together so we can serve the community. Food is medicine.”

Lionel Triplett, a regional manager for Amazon, said the new pantry “is a unique resource” that “will be an asset to the community.”

Produce inside of Bethel New Life’s new food pantry sponsored by Amazon. | Shanel Romain

Walker said the new pantry will help Bethel New Life grow into the organization he envisions, which is a pivot from its past. The pantry is part of a much larger plan that includes transforming part of Bethel New Life’s nine-acre Austin campus into the Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub.

During an interview at a fundraiser held earlier this month at Walker’s Austin home, he outlined some structural changes the nonprofit has experienced since he took the helm nearly three years ago.

“Bethel had been off the map for some time and had been through some financial hardships,” said Walker, a program director for After School Matters for 17 years before coming to Bethel.

“In the last two years, we haven’t been able to do much,” he said. “We were active with our senior housing but that time gave us an opportunity to rethink our mission and vision and figure out how to take our programming into the next decade. How can we upgrade, and how can we look at best practices?”

Walker said Bethel once had over 350 employees before getting into financial trouble. Now, the organization is down to only eight employees, he said.

“When I got here, we had to reconsider how we do our work so that we could rebuild,” he said, adding that the nonprofit will lean on its two campuses in Austin and West Garfield Park as assets to leverage financially and programmatically.

“One of the things we figured out is, with a campus the size of ours in Austin, we can work with other community organizations that provide the wellness services that Bethel used to provide under its roof,” Walker said. “So, we partnered with these organizations. That way, we’re not assuming the risk of staffing all of these people. We really just have to manage the relationship and help with outreach and [trust-building].”

The proposed Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub is named after Bethel’s longtime senior director of community services, who passed away in 2019. The Hub will feature a community garden, horticenter, sunroom, educational center, gathering space, and a 10,000-square-foot health center that will expand ACCESS Health’s physical and behavioral health services programming.

Walker said the nonprofit is leveraging partnerships to upgrade and refresh Bethel’s Austin campus, which is on the site of an old hospital built in 1902.

“A lot of the property is older and suffered from quite a bit of disinvestment,” he said, adding that the federal funding Bethel receives for its senior housing is restricted to that purpose alone and can’t be applied anywhere else. That hampers the nonprofit’s ability to invest in other parts of its campus.

“Many of these structures on our campus are either under-utilized because they haven’t been developed since the hospital closed, or they are so old that no investment went into them, and they had to be condemned.”

Walker said the nonprofit recently conducted an evaluation and concluded that it only needs about half of its Austin campus to service roughly 5,000 people.

“We want to be able to rebuild our nine-acre campus into a vision we’re calling the Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub that will be the location of these different organizations that are doing work across the wellness spectrum,” Walker said. “Not just mental health but financial health, arts, wellness and workforce development. This campus needs to be rebuilt to provide more space for our partners to reach as many people as possible.”

Walker said that Bethel is raising money in phases, with the proposed Wiley Wellness Hub costing at least an estimated $4.5 million.