coronavirus illinois

Foundation Seeks to Spread Word on $4 Million Relief Fund for Cook County Restaurant, Bar Workers

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

A relief fund created to help workers hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic is aiming to give those workers a helping hand in a time of need, but many don’t even realize that the help is available.

The Southern Smoke Foundation is spearheading the initiative. Known as the Chicago Relief Fund, it aims to help restaurant, bar and coffee shop employees who are experiencing financial hardships because of the ongoing pandemic.

The organization is stringent in its vetting process, but once approved, monies from the fund can be transferred very quickly, according to organizers.

The foundation created the $4 million fund to help support workers, but $3.6 million remains unclaimed at this time.

Many workers, including Peter Mohawk, only hear of the fund through friends or fellow workers, and he was surprised when he heard about it.

“I thought it was a southern thing,” he recalled.

When Mohawk applied online for help in paying his $900 health insurance bill, he was approved a short time later.

“I think it was only a day or two,” he said. “I was like ‘this is phenomenal.’”

Kathryn Lott, the executive director of the Southern Smoke Foundation, says that the fund is available to all those workers who need a helping hand during the pandemic.

“This fund is for people who work in restaurants, coffee shops or bars, and who worked in Cook County prior to the pandemic or still do,” she said. “This is money to support anyone in any type of financial crisis. Whether it’s child support, or if you’re living in your car and it’s repossessed and you have nowhere to go.

“Once you apply, screeners in real time will know the level of urgency based on your application,” she added.

Lott says that part of the challenge in distributing the money has not only been the foundation’s name, but the self-sufficient mentality of those workers has also kept them from asking for help in some instances.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge,” she said. “This industry in general is full of self-conquerors, providers, and they have a real hard time asking for help.”

The average gift to Chicago workers is around $3,000, but each case is decided on the level of crisis that the applicant finds themselves in. Lott says there is no limit to the amount of help the foundation is willing to provide.

Mohawk is thrilled that he was able to receive the help he needed.

“It allows me to feel like I’m gonna survive this,” he said. “If it weren’t for Southern Smoke and the actors fund that have come to my aid, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have a place to live, or health insurance.”

The foundation was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged the city of Houston. The foundation's focus quickly went national however, and it's been working hard during the pandemic to help relief efforts for those hurt financially by work stoppages and slowdowns.

To qualify for assistance, workers must have worked in the food and beverage industry for a minimum of six months and an average of 30 hours per week. Applicants must be able to show proof of employment, according to the foundation.

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