For Monika Payne, April Food Day is a family affair. Each year, sporting a t-shirt with bold “LIVE UNITED” lettering on the front, Monika joins her brother and extended family at the Tinley Park Convention Center. Together, they sort hundreds of pounds of canned food and other household items into boxes. The donations are then delivered to food pantries in the south-southwest suburbs of Chicago where families will shop to restock their own shelves at home.
Monika’s brother is Johanns Williams, chair of United Way of Metro Chicago’s South-Southwest Suburban Regional Board. He initiated April Food Day in the Southland more than a decade ago after witnessing the impacts of food insecurity within his own family. The first food drive was driven by Johanns’ business constituents in the hotel industry and supported by United Way, Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau, and other partners. Each participating hotel collected food, and the first food drive had seven volunteers and one eight-foot table, bringing in about 2,700 pounds of food.
Monika was there to help. “When Johanns invited me to volunteer for this event, I gladly joined this important cause,” she said.
More than 10 years later, April Food Day has expanded from an eight-foot table to the Tinley Park Convention Center, collecting tens of thousands of pounds of food. “It’s a joyous and definitely ‘proud sister’ moment for me to be able to participate in such an important cause that represents the huge heart of my brother,” Monika said.
A Background in Community Leadership and Youth Development
Monika is no stranger to supporting her community. When she isn’t leading as president and CEO of Caljohn Asset Management, LLC, a project management firm, she serves as a volunteer commissioner for Richton Park, the south suburb where she, her husband, and two middle school sons call home. She is also a computer science teacher for the local school district and recently become executive director for Youth Education Development Academy (YEDA), a nonprofit that motivates youth to value education, care for their health, and exercise a constructive attitude towards life.
“I’ve been consistently involved with youth development in some capacity for over 20 years, so I definitely have a passion for supporting not only my children, but other youth in the community in becoming well-rounded, productive members of society,” Monika said.
“Of course, in working with youth, I was able to see firsthand the need to address the basic needs of families, such as food disparity. Before we can teach them, we have to feed them,” she added. Which is why April Food Day is so important. In Cook County, nearly 16% of households experience food insecurity. The number for families with children is even higher: 22%.*
Addressing the Need for Food
April Food Day helps replenish pantries in the south suburbs each spring right before school is out. During the summer months, with kids at home, some families struggle to provide regular, nutritious meals. Ongoing inflation and high food costs don’t make this any easier.
“The need to replenish pantries more often than the holiday seasons was evident as I would observe families in the school district struggle to keep food in their homes,” Monika said. “One of the most satisfying feelings is seeing the mounds and mounds of food collected at April Food Day. Each year, I would see truckloads of food distributed to the pantries from the food drive. The collective efforts of those who support April Food Day really make a difference.”
Monika is excited to be back at the Tinley Park Convention Center for April Food Day 2023. Once again donning her “LIVE UNITED” t-shirt, she’ll greet guests at the door and track hundreds of food donations.
“To me, it’s extremely important to acknowledge each individual who brings in donations and let them know that what they are doing is a big deal and greatly appreciated,” Monika said. “I see a village coming together to achieve something meaningful.”
“The highlight of April Food Day is always the spirit of giving that fills the atmosphere! Everyone is so willing to help, and it serves as proof that there are some wonderful, generous individuals who live among us.”
Join Monika at April Food Day on April 27!
Support food security for individuals and families in the Southland by donating food, volunteering, or making a financial contribution.