As The Chicago Help Initiative celebrates its 15th year, founder Jacqueline C. Hayes steps up her mission to feed the city’s homeless community, body and soul.
Jacqueline C. Hayes found her passion for social welfare while working as a broker in some of Chicago’s toniest neighborhoods.
Jacqueline C. Hayes knows her way around Chicago: A downtown resident since 18, Hayes is a real estate broker specializing in retail leasing along tony thoroughfares like Oak Street and the Mag Mile. But it wasn’t until the city closed Lower Wacker Drive in 1999 that Hayes really took notice of the homeless community growing on Michigan Avenue. “I had to ask them to leave the doorways because they were interfering with my making money [as a broker],” recalls Hayes. “In addition to that, I started thinking this is what tourists saw. Isn’t that an awful way [to view] the city? Then, I finally got to the right place in thinking, This is so sad, because this is where these [homeless] people feel safe.” Determined to do something, Hayes began hosting meals in Catholic Charities’ dining hall, an effort that has evolved into the nonprofit The Chicago Help Initiative (CHI), a weekly dinner service providing gourmet meals to 130 guests in a safe, white-tablecloth setting (plus an additional 70 bagged meals to go) that also features speakers from various social service agencies. As The Chicago Help Initiative commemorates 15 years and prepares for its annual Helping Hands Fundraiser, Hayes shares how the charity has changed so many lives—including her own.
How has The Chicago Help Initiative evolved in the past 15 years?
The first meals were not as well attended [because the concept was new]; I don’t believe we had speakers, either—we just had meals. One of the reasons that we did decide to go ahead and do a literacy program was because I gave [diners] a survey to fill out, and they weren’t doing it. I said, “Why?” And they said, “I can’t read.” We got our training from Literacy Chicago, [and] we tutor right after the meals. A lot of things happened because of our experiences: We were able to see what was needed, we learned along the way, and we were able to improve what we offer. The other thing that happened is that we started developing important relationships with our guests.
Tell us about these relationships.
There’s a lot. Approximately 20 percent of our guests are veterans, and in the beginning, one of the board members was the general manager of Rock Bottom, so for two or three years we had Christmas Day at Rock Bottom. One of our guests was in a wheelchair—his legs were amputated, he was a veteran—and he kept saying, “Jackie, Jackie, make sure I get there; I want to come.” We got him there, and he just had the best time; he died four days later of diabetes, and all I can think is, Thank God we got him there. Then we have other stories [like] Abdullah: We have a gardening project, and right across from Holy Name [Cathedral], we got three plots and got flowers from the Flower Show. Abdullah made a point of going every day, pulling out every weed. A lot of people saw him walking that way all the time, so they said, “Would you help me garden?” We got him some business cards, and he started doing stuff for other people. Assumption Church has a wonderful little garden, and they wanted some help, so we sent him over there—and this is where the miracle comes in: He befriended the church secretary, and she happened to have a friend who managed a building in the South Loop that had Section 8 housing and found out that he was entitled to some Social Security money. She got him [an] apartment—it’s the first time he’s lived under a roof in 35 years. He is a different man today—he stands taller. It’s just amazing.
What is your goal for The Chicago Help Initiative?
Well, one of the things we also have discovered is that while somebody might be going for interviews, we have to give them bus fare to get there or hook them up with [nonprofit] Dress for Success to help them get clothes, but if we had more funds ourselves—if we applied for a grant—we could expand in a number of ways, too. There’s always been a goal to eliminate or take away homelessness—I don’t think that will ever happen, quite honestly, because there are so many different levels of why someone’s homeless. But I think that there’s far more compassion. The thing that I’ve learned is that a lot of people want to help, and they’re very generous in helping, if we can harness it the right way. Tickets start at $85 for The Chicago Help Initiative’s Helping Hands Fundraiser, June 11, 5:30 pm, The Montgomery Club, 500 W. Superior St. For tickets, visit chicagohelpinitiative.org