Beginning with one cup of coffee served to someone in need, over the past 25 Breakthrough has partnered with those affected by poverty to build connections, develop skills and open doors of opportunity.
Our 25 Years series highlights some of the impactful stories from our 25 years of service to Chicago and East Garfield Park.

Read all 25 Years stories

Judy Cuchetto first walked through Breakthrough’s doors when it was just a small storefront, serving coffee to homeless men on Chicago’s northside. After a year of volunteering in various roles, she came on as staff, and was there for the 25 years of growth and development that followed. This past April, Judy retired from Breakthrough after a quarter-century of service, but said she will always stay connected to its mission in heart, spirit, and prayer.

Judy served on the frontline of Breakthrough’s mission, as a case manager for homeless men. She first discovered Breakthrough while working as a counselor for another organization. She was seeking a safe place for her client to go after he exited a rehab facility.

“I was literally walking up and down Ashland Avenue with this man, asking people if they knew of a safe and welcoming place he could go,” Judy said. “Somebody said they knew of a place where a woman was serving coffee and lunch out of a church storefront during the day.”

Sure enough, a few blocks down, Judy knocked on the door of that storefront and walked in to meet Arloa. After a year of volunteering, she would come on as staff in 1993. Judy remembers a typical day at Breakthrough like this: they would open the storefront in the early morning, and welcome homeless men through their doors.

“Many of the men were hungry for someone to talk to. They would come to us and say, ‘We heard this is a place where people will talk to us, where they’ll listen to us,’” Judy said. “Breakthrough has always been committed to treating people with dignity and love. That’s what made it a place that I always wanted to be a part of. It was relaxed and personal.”

The storefront had humble beginnings, and Judy remembered that their modus operandi was just to identify problems and find the best solution. The men were cold, so they offered shelter. They men were hungry, so they provided lunch. The most important thing on the list? The men needed jobs.

“People were desperate for jobs,” Judy said. “They wanted to earn their way through life. They didn’t want to be handed things. So we’d assign them projects and then we’d all have lunch together. It provided a foundation for them to get back on their feet and back into the workforce.”

Throughout those early years, Judy and Arloa went above and beyond the call of service. Before Breakthrough had a washer and dryer, Judy and Arloa would take the men’s clothes home and wash them themselves. With the help of Judy’s husband and son, they built a shower and bathroom for the men to use.  On nights when they knew some of the men would spend the rest of the night on park benches, Breakthrough stayed open just a little later, sometimes until 7 or 8 at night.

“As we went along, things just happened. Arloa would see a problem and then find some way to fix it,” Judy said.

In 1995, Arloa asked the church if their gymnasium could be used as a place to sleep. She obtained mats from the Department of Health and Human Services and they created a layout that made room for 30 men.

“We took in as many men as we could. We knew that without this space, they would be sleeping outside. Homeless men and women weren’t getting what they needed in those times,” Judy said.

“We needed them to understand that it wasn’t just about getting a person off the street. It was about building a relationship with them…”

On Thanksgiving night, Arloa and Judy would gather volunteers and share a meal with the men. On Christmas morning, the men would make breakfast together, share presents, and spend time in devotion.

“We tried to make it feel like family for the men,” she said. “We had our own Charlie Brown Christmasses.”

There is one image that she remembers most vividly. When the men would go to sleep on the gymnasium floor, one of the other men would stay up all night, and watch over them.

“We would pay him to watch over the men while they slept,” Judy said. “He sat at a desk with a little lamp. And he just watched over them, all night, every night.”

It still brings her to tears, just thinking about it today.

“We needed them to understand that it wasn’t just about getting a person off the street. It was about building a relationship with them, and giving them an understanding of how valuable they are as human beings,” she said.

As more men (and women) began coming to Breakthrough looking for help, it was time to expand. The women’s center was Breakthrough’s first west side location, opening in 2000 at its current location of 3330 W. Carroll Ave. The new, expanded men’s center would join it just down the street in 2008, at 402 N. St. Louis Ave. Nearly 20 years after Judy started, the FamilyPlex would be built at 3219 W. Carroll Ave.

“We still get people calling who remember those early days, days when we didn’t have computers and did everything by hand,” Judy said. “God used Arloa. That is so true. She is the one who orchestrated it and He’s the one who made it happen.”

Now 75 years old, Judy said she never imagined she would spend 25 years of her life with Breakthrough.

“I just kept asking my husband, can I work until I’m 60? ‘Til I’m 65? Then I promised him I would retire at 75, and so I kept that promise,” she said. “Going to Breakthrough never felt like ‘going to work.’ I can’t describe it because I just loved it. It all started out with this little tiny storefront room. It ended up being my mission with God.”