If there’s something good to come of growing up in poverty, it’s that in some, it instills a deep-seeded empathy that compels them to help others. Such is the case with Alisa Burks Simmons and Antwan Burks, co-founders of Arise and Shine Food and Outreach Centers in Michigan City.
The brother-sister team are two of nine siblings who grew up poor on Michigan City’s west side.
“We basically have experienced everything there is to experience from the poverty cycle,” said Burks, who serves as president and director of programs and partnerships. “It’s frightening not to know where your next meal will come from, but our mother always taught us: no matter how little you have, there’s always room to give to others.”
Back in 2014, Simmons, a nurse by trade with that inherent caring nature, took notice of the homeless on Michigan City streets and felt the urge to help.
After working with the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church clergy and other partners, Simmons served her first meal soup-kitchen style out of the basement of the church and a breakfast ministry was born.
Since then the organization has evolved to a full-fledged food and outreach center offering meals and food pantry access five days a week to the homeless and working poor, and outreach programs that focus on life skills, education, food and household subsidy, employment training and placement, personal empowerment, counseling, mentoring, assistance with insurance and healthcare, and referrals to other collaborative programs in the county.
Simmons serves as CEO and director of the center.
In 2017, Burks, who had been living in Florida working for various not-for-profits, came back home after a death in the family. He and Simmons realized they could be a dynamic team.
“I had the business knowledge that could help Arise and Shine grow, and she had the outreach expertise,” Burks said. “We both work in the medical fields – she as a nurse, and I in sales – so we put our skills to use to create a more formal structure for Arise and Shine.”
Since then, the organization has grown to serve more than 1,000 individuals and families, and they have seen a spike since the pandemic began.
Their work is even more meaningful now that they are carrying on a legacy.
“Our mother passed a way in February,” Simmons said. “She is the reason we do this.”
Mildred L. Hervey was a nurse’s aid and Head Start teacher, and while she had retired by the time she passed, she was able to see the values she worked so hard to instill in her children come to life.
“She always taught us – love thy neighbor – and that is the basis for everything we do,” Simmons said.
“Every person we encounter at Arise and Shine is deserving of our love and respect. Our mission is to provide the support they need to emerge from crisis, but then also live a better life, whether that’s to find employment, get counseling, or come out of isolation,” Burks said.
The Shine Aid for Family Emergencies (SAFE) program is the cornerstone offering of Arise and Shine – a three-tiered service offering weekly free hot breakfast, and access to both the community food pantry and community clothing closet.
Other programs focus on employment assistance (Best Food Forward), life skill education (Communiversity), and prevention of senior social isolation, among others.
While they have had to suspend some programs focused on physical gathering, and modify some practices to comply with federal, state, local, and CDC guidelines regarding the pandemic, they are still able to provide meal service and food and clothing via pre-arranged curbside pickup. Regular updates can be found on their Facebook Page.
Both Burks and Simmons said that while they feel blessed to have emerged from childhood poverty, they can’t help but thank community supporters who have made the program possible.
“This isn’t just our effort. This is the whole community coming together to lift each other up and support those in need,” Simmons said.
Support has come from individual donors and organizations/businesses such as Leeds Public House, Fiddlehead, Harley Davidson of Michigan City, WeConnect, Healthlinc, Mak Salon and Spa, Moore’s Auto and Towing, South Bend Ruff Ryders, Healthcare Foundation of La Porte, Integrative Flavors, La Porte County Association of REALTORS, Reprographic Arts, Palko Services, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Franciscan Health, and Michigan City Community Enrichment Corporation.
As Simmons and Burks look to fulfill their mission in the future, they plan to keep one thing at the center of it all.
“We just keep going back to our mom and her inspiration. She taught us how to be resourceful and work with having less. And in the midst of our own poverty and being exposed to the different risk factors associated with it, she taught us how to look out for your fellow man,” Burks said. “Even though your situation looks bleak, there’s still a way to give back to others.”