A muffin can change a person’s life.
Just ask Hilary Verhaeghe, a Geneva resident who’s adopted a new identity because of a baked good. The 29-year-old esthetician is also known as the Muffin Lady, leader of The Muffin Project, a nonprofit dedicated to handing out socks, underwear, lunches, coats, tents – and muffins – to the homeless who occupy Verhaeghe’s roughly mile-long walk from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Magnificent Mile.
To Verhaeghe, The Muffin Project is a movement; one that started with a domed caked resting in a plastic bag.
“I feel like each and every day, someone else’s life is changed,” Verhaeghe said. “Maybe not just the homeless, but people like you and me. I feel like you forget there are really good people out there and if you give people a chance, they’ll do good. We’re all moving together for a bigger cause.”
The Muffin Project began by accident last October. Sulking about her lost designer purse on the way to work, Verhaeghe realized how few real problems she had compared to some people around her. Specifically, she started to notice the homeless people she passed on her almost daily walk to work.
“Something clicked,” Verhaeghe said. “I thought ‘I can do more.’”
After handing out apples on her initial try, Verhaeghe discovered not all of the homeless people – she prefers to call them “pals” – she encountered had the ability to bite into an apple. She switched to muffins and the project took off.
A year and a month later, with advice from an acquaintance, The Muffin Project had become a registered 501(c)(3). Her friends, Emilee Klyczek and Melissa Khamkhounnavong, act as directors, helping her accept and track donations. Sometimes other people, such as her pals, help Verhaeghe distribute items. She hopes each of her outings ends with one less person going to bed hungry and cold.
According to the City of Chicago’s 2016 point-in-time count, nearly 6,000 homeless people live in Chicago. Verhaeghe regularly sees about 45 of them. She knows their typical spots and their struggles, some of which she shares on The Muffin Project’s Facebook page and Instagram account.
Union Pacific West Line customers might recognize Verhaeghe because of the number of bags she carries with her during her 12 weekly trips on Metra. On a recent trip she had 18 lunches, about a dozen muffins, several baseball caps and other miscellaneous items packed into three bags.
The bulky bags she totes with her often spark conversations with strangers. Some revolve around how she has the time to devote to The Muffin Project when she works three jobs.
“When you’re passionate about something, you make it work,” Verhaeghe said. “It’s part of my routine.”
She also finds motivation in the generosity of others. People help sort items; they make sandwiches and bake muffins. All of the items come donated, and she’s received more than $2,000 from GoFundMe.com donors. Then there are the people continue to purchase items from Tthe Muffin Project’s Pals Christmas Wish List on Amazon.com.
“People want to help,” Verhaege said. “You just have to give people a platform to give.”
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