Remarkable Woman Lisa Nigro

"I love my life," says Inspiration Cafe founder Lisa Nigro. "It's a struggle, but it's like a beautiful struggle because I'm doing it to enhance people's lives, to lift them up, and in doing so I'm doing the same for myself." (Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune / January 18, 2012)

Lisa Nigro is busy creating the next chapter in her extraordinary life.

The first few chapters? Mom and dad divorce when Nigro is a toddler. She shuttles between their homes, dreams of becoming a veterinarian but studies social work. After laboring in the field for several years, she becomes a Chicago cop but leaves police work and starts pulling a food-filled red wagon through Uptown to feed the homeless.

Nigro eventually opens Inspiration Cafe on Wilson Avenue in 1991. Motivated by Atlanta's Cafe 458, Inspiration serves the homeless in a restaurant setting.

Twenty-plus years later, the nonprofit has two cafes, a training center plus a network of resources dealing with the causes of homelessness and poverty. Along the way, Nigro has clocked 17 years in the health club industry, won awards for Inspiration Cafe (including the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal) and raised twins (college students Emily and Nick) with her husband, Perry Nigro.

While the Chicagoan is still on the advisory board of and honorary chairwoman at Inspiration Corp. ("I love Inspiration with all my heart," says its founder), the focus of this 51-year old dynamo is on Transform U (transformutraining.org), a new nonprofit geared to training people with cognitive disabilities to be certified peer personal fitness trainers.

Q: How did Transform U come about?

A: I was working at the (health club) front desk, and a girl came in, Christine, who happens to have Down syndrome. She was wearing a triathlon shirt. I asked about the triathlon shirt. She was working with a fitness trainer at the gym and training for a triathlon, and I was thinking, "Why couldn't she be a personal trainer for someone like herself?" … She's an amazing young woman. She works at a theater. She's independent. And she said that being fit makes her feel like an independent lady. That's how Transform U came to be. I said to God — but you can say "universe," whatever you want to say — I said OK, "Here's the deal: Whatever door you open first, I'm walking through it." … It's been an amazing adventure.

Q: Why start something new when Inspiration Cafe's already up and running?

A: I'm highly curious. That is my gift and my downfall: curiosity. I have to figure out why things are the way they are. How come no one's tried to see if (some) people could become personal trainers? Or when you do community outreach in gyms, why isn't the whole community embraced? Why is it just people who pay?

Q: What word best describes you?

A: My first thought was "tenacious," but I also want to say "hilarious," because I push through life, but I am very goofy.

Q: So people have written lots about you. Which word do you wish they'd use?

A: "Grounded." Because people know me as being really flighty, I guess. And I'm not.

Q: Who's your living hero?

A: I can't claim a living hero. And this is the reason why: The cafe started because I clipped an article in the paper and just saw someone else doing what I wanted to do. I do that all the time. So, this week's living hero? I was reading about the Freedom Riders (civil rights activists), and one girl who gave them water. She was 12 at the time. A bomb was thrown on their bus, starting a fire and (the riders) were choking on the fumes, and she just came out of nowhere and just started giving water to people. … And today's? The (formerly) homeless girl who (was a semifinalist) in the Intel science competition. Some people would implode, but she used (her situation) as fuel to become this curious scientist.

Q: A favorite author or special book that touched your life?

A: "Man's Search for Meaning" (by) Viktor Frankl, and Anne Lamott's "Traveling Mercies."

Q: What's your professional mantra?

A: Your past does not equal your future.

Q: What keeps you going?

A: I love my life. It's a struggle, but it's like a beautiful struggle because I'm doing it to enhance people's lives, to lift them up, and in doing so I'm doing the same for myself.

Q: Any lessons learned from your father and your mother?

A: Both of them were very much people people. … I believe strongly that's how the cafes became successful. Besides my intense curiosity, the skills my parents have given me are very much people skills.

jhevrdejs@tribune.com