From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge

Chicago, Ill.

Lisa Nigro knows how it feels to be at the bottom. Raised in poverty by her drug-and alcohol-addicted mother, "People didn't have hopes for me," she says. Determined to overcome her obstacles, she went on to become a police officer on Chicago's west side, yet never forgot her tough start in life. "People with money or power looked down on the poor and uneducated," she says. "So I wanted to even the playing field."

After quitting her job, she began handing out sandwiches to the homeless from her nephew's red wagon. She raised $30,000 through bake sales and chili cook-offs and opened Inspiration Cafe (, a restaurant in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood where volunteers serve free meals to the poor and homeless. Through her nonprofit, since 1991 Nigro has also provided subsidized housing, counseling or job training in restaurant skills for 15,000 homeless people. For Kimberlee Jackson, 32, a hand up-not a handout-was all she needed to get off the streets. After Jackson completed Nigro's training program, she got a job, rented an apartment and now goes to college. "When I was homeless, I didn't feel like I could accomplish anything," she says. "Now I can overcome all obstacles."