As rap hits blared from a nondescript storefront in Roseland, Aleta Clark and her “friends” emerged from a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van on Thursday as news crews scurried to get a shot of the chic crew’s fashionably late arrival.
Clark, an activist better known as “Englewood Barbie,” donned an eye-catching silver dress and quickly drew the attention of the throng of reporters. However, she was clear that the red carpet-style event was actually about her well-dressed “friends,” all of whom are homeless residents of a viaduct near 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue.
For the past four years, Clark has provided free meals to those who live in the encampment, endearingly called “Club 51.” This Thanksgiving, she held her second annual “Sneakerball” as a way to offer some dignity and a warm meal for the holiday.
“I just want them to feel special,” noted Clark, whose philanthropic endeavors have garnered kudos from celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I’m from Chicago, and from the ’hood, so I love to make sure that the ’hood has somebody that they can depend on, whether it’s during the holidays or just every day,” she added, before joining the festivities.
Clark’s “friends” were given haircuts and a chance to shower at two of the five “safe houses” Clark operates across the city. Those homes, which offer free groceries five days a week, are funded by fashion impresario Virgil Abloh and NBA great Dwayne Wade, Clark noted.
The men tapped for this year’s Turkey Day festivities were also given fresh outfits and new shoes provided by the Jordan brand, which has collaborated with Abloh and previously sponsored Wade. Bruce Jenkins, personal chef for NBA star Jimmy Butler, prepared the feast.
“I’m just happy to be a part of something that’s amazing in Chicago because you always hear about the bad stuff,” Clark said, holding back tears. “They don’t show stuff like this.”
Johnny Bryant, a native South Sider and “Club 51” resident, has known Clark about as long as she’s been visiting the encampment. They’ve grown so close, he now considers her a “big sister” and a “best friend.”
Kenneth Porter, another “Club 51” resident originally from the Near West Side, said he’s most thankful for Clark and her team “showing us that we’re not left out.”
“There’s people out there that care for us,” Porter added. “Like I say, everybody’s circumstances aren’t that bad. It’s going to get better. Things [are] going to change.”