Tollway supervisor lends helping hand with after-hours volunteer food deliveries
Working as supervisor at the Illinois Tollway’s M-14 maintenance site keeps Mike Velasco busy, but he still manages to find time for what’s become almost a second career—collecting and delivering food and other essentials to people in need.
“I’ll help out whenever I have some spare time, whenever I can lend a hand, whether it’s after work on weekdays or on the weekends,” said Velasco, a 31-year veteran of the Tollway.
He spends about 10 hours weekly volunteering with the River of Life organization, typically helping collect surplus food donated by grocery stores, then delivering it to churches, food pantries and community organizations across the Chicago area.
His work with the organization is actually a family activity—his father-in-law, Russ Pratali, started the charity about 40 years ago as a way to help people who are facing hunger or need assistance obtaining household items like furniture or mattresses.
After marrying his wife, Jill, more than 20 years ago, Velasco began volunteering because he wanted to be part of the work his father-in-law’s organization was doing.
“My wife said, ‘my dad has this charity, do you want to help him out?’” Velasco recalled. “I had an idea of what he was doing, then when I wen to see the whole operation I was very impressed.”
Velasco started his Tollway career as an equipment operator/laborer working on the road, doing maintenance tasks, snow plowing and assisting stranded drivers.
“I joined the Tollway fresh out of high school and I found it very interesting,” he said. “I figured out I enjoy helping people, whether it’s when I’m working or volunteering.”
He views his after-hours work as just another way to help people who need assistance.
“The emotion that goes through me when we’re helping someone who needs assistance is very fulfilling,” Velasco said. “When you’re giving back to the community--and to see it going directly to the people who need help--it really is very rewarding.”
About 90 percent of the work the organization does is to provide food assistance, Velasco said, describing how he and other volunteers will travel to several different grocery stores—including chain stories operated by Whole Foods, Mariano’s and Trader Joe’s—to pick up surplus or out-of-date food the stores are donating.
“We usually pull up to a dock, fill up our van with different goods and then we take that around to different charities, primarily churches, who distribute it to the people in their communities who need it,” Velasco said.
At times, they’ll collect other needed items, including donated clothing, furniture or mattresses to help distribute.
That work takes them all across Chicago and the suburbs, even occasionally into southern Wisconsin. He likes that River of Light works closely with other charitable groups, sometimes pooling resources or dividing up trips to local organizations they’re assisting.
And meeting people who have benefitted from the aid provided by River of Light provides makes his efforts feel worthwhile.
“I’ve met people who received food or other assistance, I have seen people grow through it,” Velasco said. “I’m glad we’re able to do something like this. It makes me feel good to know we helped.”
Other family members have also gotten involved in the work, including his wife and their three children, who range in age from 21 to 9 years old.
“They’ve all gone out on runs with us,” he said. “It’s fulfilling, even to a teenager.”
His volunteer work has also prompted to start thinking about a second career after he eventually leaves the Tollway.
“I can see myself retiring and one day taking this over because it is satisfying,” Velasco said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who need help. But there’s a lot of helpful people out there and a lot of food that needs to be distributed.”