AIDS: Delivering life-Open Hand Chicago starts rolling out meals

On the blustery cold Christmas Eve night of 1988, Greg Harris found himself driving in circles.

With just one hot meal left to deliver in Rogers Park and the temperature plummeting, Harris considered going home. He couldn’t find the building, and he and another volunteer had been driving for hours.

A few months earlier, in August, Harris and others had made a promise. Harris was part of a rag-tag group of LGBT Chicagoans and allies who watched their community not just die of AIDS complications, but die hungry and often alone.

“We’re going to make sure that no one in the city of Chicago who has AIDS goes hungry,” Harris had said.

So despite the cold and his own fatigue, Harris found his way to a door at the end of a tight gangway. Sitting behind the door covered in blankets was a man who had been waiting for hours for his only meal of the day. The man was relieved he had not been forgotten.

Harris broke down and cried.

“You’re not just delivering meals, you’re delivering life to people,” he recalled.

What started as a holiday meal run for people with AIDS in 1988, would quickly evolve into a citywide movement and later Chicago’s largest food provider for people with HIV, Open Hand Chicago ( now Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care ) .

It started in apartment kitchens, said Lori Cannon, a founder of Open Hand and current food program coordinator of Vital Bridges.

Cannon, who served on the Chicago steering committee for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, had just finished work on the quilt’s display at Navy Pier. Toward the end of the summer, she said, she found herself with “postpartum blues.”

Cannon, Harris, healthcare advocate Matthew Hamilton and others decided to do something they had largely all been doing on their own for friends. They started making meals and delivering them personally.

“We knew we had to feed people,” said Cannon. “It’s really a testament to a community that cared when no one else did.”

Volunteers had spent the summer planning and chose Christmas Eve for the first delivery. They cooked the meals in Hamilton’s apartment and then drove out in teams of two.

“It was so cold, it was too cold to snow, but there were crystals in the air,” Cannon said.

Cannon was working as a bus driver at the time, and she painstakingly charted the routes for 35 meals, five routes with seven stops each. She remembers the details of these routes sometimes better than major dates.

The first routes included stops in Lakeview, Albany Park, Humboldt Park, Rogers Park, and from Hyde Park to 137th Street. Cannon still jokes that had Harris just followed her directions, he never would have lost his way driving. Harris admits that is probably true.

Just a few days later on Jan. 2, 1989, the group began regular meal deliveries, cooking in apartments and bringing food by car or by foot.

Founders had adopted the name “Open Hand Chicago” for their budding organization, inspired Project Open Hand in San Francisco, which was founded in 1985 with a similar model.

Project Open Hand, however, differed from the Chicago model in one key area. The San Francisco organization ran an independent kitchen. Chicago’s meals were coming out people’s homes.

It was something that Cannon and others had not considered as potentially problematic as their operation started to grow.

It was, however, something on the mind of local restaurateur Tom Tunney. Tunney was active in his community’s battle with AIDS, and he housed the offices of various AIDS organizations in the building housing his Lakeview restaurant, Ann Sather.

“I didn’t think we could support an independent volunteer-run kitchen and do it safely,” he said.

Tunney offered the kitchen of his Lakeview restaurant to Open Hand Chicago. “We’re already preparing food every day,” he told them.

In addition to preparing meals for customers, the Ann Sather kitchen began rolling out two meals a day for Open Hand Chicago. The kitchen sent bagged lunches and hot meals all over the city, and volunteers delivered them by car and by foot.

As a result, Tunney’s restaurant suffered from the same stigma that was sweeping the nation during a time when AIDS meant death.

“We had people calling,” he said. “They wouldn’t eat at Ann Sather anymore because ‘they would get AIDS.’”

Tunney didn’t budge.

“It was something that we needed to do for our community,” he said. “Nuts or not, this is what we wanted to do. I didn’t worry what other people thought.”

In the end, Tunney believes his business thrived as a result. His community came in droves to support the restaurant, which began to feel like a community center for many LGBT people.

Open Hand Chicago also grew with support. The organization quickly went from delivering 35 meals to delivering 100. Within its first few years, the organization was feeding more than 300 people.

The meals that Open Hand delivered were often both the only food and the only human contact that clients would have all day. Sometimes rejected by their families and fighting a misunderstood disease, people with AIDS were often abandoned to their own care.

It was volunteers, said Cannon, who quietly administered to both the health and hearts of Open Hand clients. Many of those volunteers still work with the organization. Cannon calls them the “unsung heroes” of the organization.

Perhaps not coincidentally, many who helped start Open Hand would later become some of the best-known leaders in Chicago’s LGBT community and beyond.

Tunney is currently the 44th Ward alderman. James Cappleman, who referred clients to Open Hand when he was a social worker, is currently serving as alderman of the 46th Ward. Modesto “Tico” Valle, an early volunteer, is the CEO of Center on Halsted. Harris is the 13th District State Representative and was a major force in pushing through the civil-unions law in Illinois.

Still, all who remember the early days of Open Hand share a similar resignation when talking about their service. The organization is not one that lends itself to self-congratulation. For many, there was nothing charitable about their volunteer work. Their friends and chosen families were dying; it would have been indecent not to do something.

Service was sometimes a coping mechanism, something active and helpful to do, rather than just watching people die.

“Everybody wanted to do something that was hands-on,” Cannon said. “We had all been turned into medieval people where death was our constant companion.”

Most who cooked and delivered meals that night, however, passed away. Taken by the virus, many of the earliest Open Hand volunteers died by the early 1990s.

“I’m one of the few people I knew back in the day that is still alive,” said Harris, who is open his own HIV-positive status.

For Cannon, working at Open Hand from the start often meant watching the arch of the virus take hold on those she worked with.

“They were volunteers,” Cannon said. “They became clients. Then they were patches on the quilt.”

But while many were taken by AIDS, new volunteers kept coming to Open Hand. Over time, the organization would grow into one of the city’s most powerful forces against HIV/AIDS.

In July 2011, the agency merged with Heartland Health outreach. Since it was founded in 1988, Vital Bridges has provided more than 10 million meals to needy clients. After mergers with other agencies over the years, their work expanded, and they can also boast of providing 600,000 nights of shelter and 250,000 hours of counseling to more than 10,000 clients.

The annual Vital Bridges Holiday brunch is Sunday, Dec. 4, at the Four Seasons Hotel. See http://www.vitalbridges.org/ .