BBQ for homeless moms is for those ‘who feel they fell short’

Tawana Pope of Diamonds in the Making, a nonprofit that does outreach with unhoused people, will host the free barbecue on the West Side on Saturday.

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Tawana Pope, an outreach worker for Hines VA Medical Center, stands outside the suburban hospital.

Tawana Pope, an outreach worker for Hines VA Medical Center. She grew up on Chicago’s West Side and dedicated her life to helping those experiencing addiction and homelessness.

Louis Washkowiak/Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital

When Tawana Pope talks about herself, she talks about her family — nieces, nephews, grandkids and siblings, and of course her own kids.

She talks about how she briefly lost those kids, as she was struggling with sobriety, and how that pain drives her to this day.

Since getting clean, Pope has dedicated herself to helping others experiencing addiction or homelessness. On Sunday, she’s whipping up something for those familiar with the pain that remains at the heart of what she does.

The result is a Mother’s Day barbecue for women going through all that while still trying to be a mother.

“We’re honoring moms who lost their children, like I did many years ago,” said Pope, 50, “moms who feel they fell short of what motherhood is supposed to be like.”

The free barbecue is planned for noon to 5 p.m. Saturday in a vacant lot near Van Buren Street and Pulaski Road. Pope expects about 150 people to show up to feast on hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, chicken, string beans and potatoes.

It is open to men, too, though the women are the ones getting special gift bags. In addition to cooking, Pope and other women who lost their children will share their stories as a way of inspiring others.

“That’s my thing,” Pope said. “To go back and let them know there is a way out.”

She certainly didn’t know that once.

“When you’re a single mom and being bound by addiction, you don’t even know where to pick up the pieces to be that mom you’re expected to be,” she said.

Pope, eldest of 10, grew up in West Garfield Park, close to the barbecue site. Her mother was an addict, she said, and by the time Pope, still in her teens, had her first two kids – Donell and Davey – it was up to her to care for six of her younger siblings, too.

She became addicted to PCP and alcohol. One night in the late 1990s, one of her children was shot in the hand with a gun that was in the home but wasn’t locked up.

All her children were taken away. She didn’t regain custody for three years.

“When you take away a woman’s children, you take away her everything, her ability to get up in the morning,” she said.

She eventually wound up in the Cook County Jail, charged with distributing an illegal substance.

When she got out, she decided to turn her life around.

Now, she’s been sober 18 years. She works at Edward Hines Jr. VA Medical Center, doing outreach with unhoused populations. She also started a nonprofit, Diamond in the Making, where she also does outreach with unhoused people.

She hopes Saturday will be a chance for her and the others cooking and telling their stories to turn things around for others.

“You pour into your children from what you have and you can’t give what you never had,” Pope said. “So, we’re giving them that love.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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