For this pantry, Christmas Eve marks 31 years of feeding HIV/AIDS-impacted LGBTQ community
In 1988, a group of activists — overwhelmed by the toll of AIDS on Chicago’s gay community and wanting to do more than attend funerals — began delivering meals to those with HIV/AIDS.
A few days before Christmas, Lori Cannon, program coordinator at the Vital Bridges North Side Grocery Center, arrives just after 8 a.m., soon to be joined by volunteers.
They bring food out of huge, walk-in coolers. Then come the trucks, one after the other, delivering meat, fish, produce. The phones are ringing, requests for help on the other end.
More volunteers arrive. Together, they ensure groceries are stocked and ready by noon, when the Heartland Alliance Health-operated food pantry opens to its HIV/AIDS-impacted customers. They’ll get groceries at no charge — well, maybe for a smile, hug, conversation.
Christmas Eve marks 31 years since Cannon and a small group of AIDS activists — wanting to do more than attend funerals as a then-mysterious disease ravaged Chicago’s gay community — cooked at someone’s apartment and delivered meals to the afflicted.
“We had worked together after the historic Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987 to bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Chicago,” recounts Cannon, who was drawn into the battle after the first friend died of AIDS in 1981.
“We had one thing in common: Everyone we knew was either dead, dying or struggling to help someone who was heading there. We were tired. We were scared. We were angry. And we needed to do something other than sew AIDS quilt panels,” she said.
Inspired by Project Open Hand, a nonprofit launched in San Francisco in 1985 feeding seniors and the critically ill, the Chicago activists called themselves Open Hand Chicago, delivering 35 meals that first Christmas 1988. Within weeks, that burgeoned to 300 meals.
“Once social workers became aware, referrals poured in,” said Cannon, 70, of East Rogers Park. “In that first year, our handful of volunteers grew to an army of 400 people. By the end of ’89, over 41,000 hot, ready-to-eat dinners and boxed lunches had been delivered daily to over 1,200 people suffering from AIDS as we tried to relieve one burden from their lives.”
Several Open Hand co-founders were destined to become prominent LGBTQ community leaders. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), was the restaurateur who opened up his kitchen at Ann Sather Restaurant to cook meals. A social worker at Children’s Memorial Hospital, Ald. James Cappleman (46th), was referring many children with AIDS for meals assistance. And state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, was one of those who delivered meals on that first frigid Christmas Eve, later serving as the group’s board president.
By 1994, Open Hand was launching its first grocery center, in Boystown.
“Thanks to the advent of Protease inhibitors, thousands of people were freed from the automatic death sentence AIDS had been,” Cannon said. “We recognized as a team the changing epidemiology of the disease when volunteers started seeing clients able to do a little bit more on their own. We said, let’s try a grocery and let them cook for themselves.”
Absorbed in 2011 by Heartland Alliance Health — a division of the 131-year-old Heartland Alliance network serving the poor via housing, health care, jobs and immigrant services — Open Hand became Vital Bridges, today with other centers on the South and West sides.
At its 30th Annual Holiday Brunch last week at the Palmer House, Heartland Alliance Health celebrated the achievements of Vital Bridges, the nation’s only such food program targeting HIV/AIDS-impacted individuals. It will have provided 18 million meals this Christmas.
“What we’re working for isn’t complicated,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, who received the organization’s 2019 Food For Life Award at the event, for her support.
“In the wealthiest nation in the world, no one should go hungry. In the wealthiest nation in the world, no one should be forced to choose between paying rent and paying for groceries,” she said.
“Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced its plans to kick hundreds of thousands of Americans off food assistance, the latest installment of cruelty by this administration. The Trump Administration might view ‘hundreds of thousands’ as just a number. But ... there are faces behind that figure,” Duckworth said.
Open Hand’s original meal delivery program, with mapped routes and an army of volunteers, finally came to an end this past May — today’s clients preferring to cook for themselves. But while the format has changed, its mission of feeding the forgotten has not.
“It’s only going to get worse, with these food stamp cuts,” said Cannon, the last member of the original Open Hand crew still working with the organization. She remains devoted. Working six days a week at the center, she knows every client by name.
“I’m proud of what we created during that dark and deadly time. That we’re still here is a shining tribute to the tenacity, compassion and common sense of Chicago’s LGBT community. I honor the unsung heroes who fought till their last breath to make sure people were helped,” she said.
“I long for the day we can close our doors for good, but don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. The AIDS crisis isn’t over, not by a long shot.”