When she thought no one was looking, she would sit and watch. She would sit and stare as couples and families and senior citizens poured into the Chicago Auto Show, their arms aching from carrying bags of canned goods from the parking garage to the collection area. She would marvel at the sheer sight of the donation box as it would go from empty to full, her heart bursting with the realization of just what those simple canned goods would mean to the families she serves.

And she would smile.

“I love watching the children the most,“ gushed Neli Vazquez Rowland, President and Co-Founder of A Safe Haven Foundation, which has once again partnered with the Chicago Auto Show’s annual canned food drive. “The bags are almost too heavy for them to hold, but it’s become a tradition for them. When they go to the Chicago Auto Show, they know to bring some canned goods to donate.”

Neli Vasquez Rowland (second from left) and Safe Haven volunteers at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show canned goods ddrive. | COURTESY SAFE HAVEN

Neli Vasquez Rowland (second from left) and Safe Haven volunteers at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show canned goods ddrive. | COURTESY SAFE HAVEN

The partnership between the Chicago Auto Show and A Safe Haven Foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, which began when A Safe Haven Foundation board member connected the annual Auto Show with the cause.

“I remember the first year,” said General Manager of the Chicago Auto Show Dave Sloan about the non-perishable canned foods drive, which will take place February 15-17 this year. Bring three cans of food to the show and you’ll receive a coupon for $7 admission; all food is then donated to A Safe Haven. “I could not believe how it took off immediately. Chicagoans took to the idea quickly, and they were just so willing to share what they could.”

Through the years, the donations have gone on to feed thousands of homeless people across A Safe Haven’s network of 40 locations in Chicago and surrounding communities, and people whose overall lifestyle situations have changed drastically.

“These days, many of the people we serve have college degrees and had good careers,” said Vazquez Rowland. “They found themselves in the economic rollout and they simply never recovered. The pure act of feeding people is one of the greatest ways to begin the process.”

Just some of the canned goods collected last year at the Chicago Auto Show on behalf of A Safe Haven. | COURTESY A SAFE HAVEN

Just some of the canned goods collected last year at the Chicago Auto Show on behalf of A Safe Haven. | COURTESY A SAFE HAVEN

Last year, more than 10 tons of food was collected during the annual food drive. “The communities we serve don’t have grocery stores where these families have access to healthy foods,” Vazquez Rowland explained.

Of course, using these canned goods to provide for the people whom they serve is only the first step. “It is very important for us to assess people and determine the underlying reason as to why they find themselves in crisis,” she continued. “From treatment to classes to job training to access to employment to transitional housing, we want to always be sure we connects the dots that result in homelessness.”

And this year, their need has never been greater.

“The state budget crisis means that many homeless providers are not getting paid, and that’s forcing them to close down,” said Vazquez Rowland. “Already, we are serving 1,000 more people than we were last year. The pure act of feeding people is one of the greatest ways to begin the process to break the cycle of poverty and get people back to work… and help them heal.”

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.