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Computer Science Students Bring Computerization to Respond Now

In a back room at Respond Now, a line of chest-high metal filing cabinets flank the west wall, now useful only for stacking things on top. After more than 40 years, the social service agency that serves over 12,000 families annually from Chicago’s poorest suburbs has joined the computer age, thanks to computer science students and administrators at Saint Xavier University.

In three months, students turned the information on 2,000 sheets of paper into an online database, creating a new website that enables Respond Now to keep track of everything it provides clients, from groceries to vouchers for prescription medication. More importantly, it captures data essential for applying for grants, raising funds and running the day-to-day operations in a way that stretches every dollar.

Computerization at Respond Now also means food pantry clients can pick the groceries they want from a menu of available items; volunteers fill the individual requests to order. “It enables the clients to choose their own food, which is important in helping them maintain their dignity,” said Carl Wolf, executive director at Respond Now. “And it gives us number to explain the impact we’re having on the community.”

At the Chicago Heights-based agency, serving as many clients as possible has been the top priority since it opened its doors in 1970. The 22 south suburban communities Respond Now serves are among the hardest hit by economic woes, from the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in all of suburban Chicago to food insecurity rates as high as 48 percent. Foreclosure rates in its service area are some of the highest in all of suburban Cook County. Dollars that come in, go toward immediate, short-term assistance so that families – many of which are the working poor – can meet their basic needs and focus on looking for more long-term solutions.

The offer of help from SXU seemed almost heaven-sent. With a mission that encourages students “to serve wisely and compassionately in support of human dignity and the common good,” SXU asks all students to take one course in community-based education. In Computer Science, the software engineering class fills this requirement and students have typically worked on small projects around the university.

In 2012, Dr. Jean Mehta, chairman of the Computer Science Department decided that working with a nonprofit agency was a better idea, combining SXU’s mission of doing good with real-world experience for students. When administrators looked for ideas from Community Service Partners, a resource-sharing organization for charities, its CEO Bryan Dunlap, said he thought Respond Now could use the help.

In January 2013, Wolf traveled to SXU to explain what Respond Now needed. Students headed to Chicago Heights to see for themselves how the agency operated, formed teams, agreed on tasks and got to work. Dr. Mehta appointed two team leaders, Alex Lukasik and Brother Vito Martinez, a Capuchin Franciscan monk who joined the order six years ago and began working on his Computer Science degree at SXU. They had three months to build the system, enter all the data, make sure it worked and train two dozen staff members and volunteers.

The students met their deadline, creating a website that’s easy to use and captures information the agency needs. “We’ve been telling the story about the people we serve with anecdotes,” Wolf said. “Now we can do it with numbers.” Students also developed a template of the database that is available free of charge to other nonprofits with limited funds. “I recommend it to other agencies all the time,” Wolf said.

Brother Martinez stayed on as a volunteer after the system was launched, providing daily IT help. When Dr. Mehta sent a second group of students to the agency in the spring of 2014, Brother Martinez worked with them to make significant upgrades to the database, creating a feature that prevents client duplication. They also put Respond Now’s Christmas assistance program on the site to help the agency manage distribution of toys, clothing and food for nearly 1,500 children and families.

Brother Martinez will continue to help Respond Now remotely, making more changes to the website from off site, an effort that matches his own mission in life. “This way, instead of paying for a web developer, they can spend the money on food,” he said. “For me, this is an IT ministry.”

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