The Crop Hunger Walk sets off from Pilgrim Church in Oak Park. | Courtesy Matt Baron

We know it’s spring because the robins have returned, trees are budding out and CROP Hunger Walk yard signs are springing up along with the dandelions on people’s front lawns.

Joanne Despotes works part time for the village of Oak Park as a communicable disease nurse. Ted Despotes, her husband, is fully retired from his work as a service supervisor for a computer and software manufacturer. The empty-nesters and First United Church members are shifting into a different stage of life.

“It’s given Joanne and me the opportunity to give time and money away,” said Ted. “There’s nothing more fun than doing that.”

Joanne is co-chair of the event and Ted is treasurer. The CROP Walk, which is officially known as Hunger Walkathon West, will begin its 5.6-mile route at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park on May 1 at 2 p.m. Residents of Forest Park, River Forest, Maywood, Oak Park, and the Austin Neighborhood will join in the walk. The goal is to raise $100,000.

Forest Park is a major contributor to this annual fundraiser. Hope Tabernacle’s Praise Team will get gathering participants energized with rockin’ gospel music. Four churches in town, the library and the community center are all sending walkers. The village has put up a banner at the corner of Circle and Madison. Thirty-two local businesses made a contribution in 2015. Four of the 12 people on the CROP Walk planning team are from Forest Park.

Hunger Walkathon West has gained a national reputation. In the last 32 years, the walk has raised $1.3 million. Out of 1,300 walks held in the U.S. last year, Hunger Walkathon West came in 11th in terms of money raised and seventh in online fundraising.

CROP is the fundraising arm of Church World Service, a coalition of 37 Christian denominations and a major force in the fight to end hunger here at home and abroad. According to its website, “CROP Hunger Walks help to provide food and water, as well as resources that empower people to meet their own needs. From seeds and tools, to wells and water systems, to technical training and micro-enterprise loans, the key is people working together to identify their own development priorities, their strengths and their needs, something CWS has learned through some 68 years of working in partnership around the world.”

In addition, 25% of the money raised — over $70,000 in 2015 — remained in this area and went in the form of checks totaling $17,700 to six local agencies, including the Forest Park Food Pantry and Housing Forward (formerly PADS). Many CROP Walk participants appreciate that a good portion of the money raised is invested locally because the walkers are from those communities.

The main purpose is to fight hunger. But Joanne said the event has secondary benefits. “It’s a great event to bring children to,” she said. “We have things like face painting for them. It’s a fun day. In addition, children get to understand their responsibilities in the world.

“We’ve had people ‘walk’ in wheel chairs and several dogs bring their owners to the event. We really want to encourage families to bring their children because it is a way of teaching the younger members of families the power of working together for a good cause.”

It’s more than mailing a check to a charity, she added. “It’s really also about participation, about getting up and doing the work together as a community, about enjoying that we’re all in this together and that we can work together to make a difference.”

She said that when people see yard signs sprouting on people’s lawns, neighbors ask for a donation, and 400 walkers moving through their neighborhoods, it raises awareness that hunger is an issue not only for Syrian refugees but for people who may well be their neighbors.

The route will go a few blocks into the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. 

“People there are excited about it,” said Joanne. “From the very beginning, Austin has been part of the walk, both as participants and recipients. For example, the Pine Avenue Food Pantry and Cluster Tutoring each received checks from the 2015 walk.”

Those wishing to make a donation to the walk can visit