When COVID-19 hit, Nicole Alicea was a senior in high school.

She’s of the generation that lost out on major moments: football games, senior prom and graduation. Now 19, Alicea believes the pandemic has deeply affected her trajectory.

Today, Alicea works two jobs, with some shifts on weekends and double shifts that can make her work days more than 13 hours long. In one role, she’s a caregiver to an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. In her other job, she works as a valet downtown, though she hopes to find another job this winter to avoid standing outside in the cold.

During the ongoing pandemic, Nourishing Hope has responded to a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking food assistance for the first time. Many, like Alicea, had never visited a food pantry in their lives. Alicea first heard about Nourishing Hope from her mother, who moved the family to Chicago from Puerto Rico when she was 7.

Alicea receiving her choice of food items at our Sheridan Market.

“It was lonely,” Alicea said of the move. “Everyone’s over there, so we try to go back as much as we can. But it’s expensive.” She was financially able to visit Puerto Rico once during the pandemic to visit and care for her grandmother, who still lives there.

Alicea now lives with her boyfriend, and they work together to balance finances. His paycheck goes toward rent; her paychecks help them avoid slipping further into debt.

“We’re really so thankful for Nourishing Hope because you get a variety of food, you get healthy meals,” she said. “It’s really balanced, and it helps me every month.”

Since she began visiting Nourishing Hope in the winter of 2020, Alicea has especially looked forward to selecting flowers that add a welcome splash of color to her household. And the warmth she’s felt from volunteers has kept her coming back.

Alicea stands outside of our Sheridan Market with her cart of groceries.

“Seeing the good in people makes me feel hope,” Alicea said. “Coming in here, everyone’s always smiling. I try to bring good energy, avoid fighting, and stay positive.”

While assisting others in her daily life, Alicea faces every new day with this mantra in mind.

“My mom always said when you wake up, the first thing you do is help those who can’t help themselves.”

All photos were taken by Nancy Stone for Nourishing Hope.