BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The message of Valentine’s Day comes in all expanses of the heart.
The very best story surrounding this special day that we have heard recently is expressed all year long in the actions of Jacqueline Hayes as she embraces the homeless and low-income community of Chicago, whom she considers as a second family.
“When Jacqueline saw a problem, she acted. She didn’t complain about it or make a petition—she saw people were hungry, so she started a meal. She sees people as people—not as homeless, or rich, or anything else—as people, with all the plusses and minuses we all show up with. She sees intrinsic value,” says Doug Fraser, Executive Director of the Chicago Help Initiative, which Hayes founded.
When we talked with Hayes, she had slipped on the ice and was suffering a painful fracture. Nonetheless, her fellow volunteers were predicting that she would be there for the weekly Wednesday night family dinner that she hosts in the dining room of Catholic Charities.
Hayes, a realtor for high-end businesses on Michigan Avenue and Oak Street and head of Jacqueline Hayes & Associates, Ltd, is a self-proclaimed hustler, asking colleagues for their help in helping her friends: “It’s like closing a real estate deal. Even a no doesn’t mean forever.”
“I am never afraid to ask. That’s my claim to fame,” Hayes says.
“In 1999 when the city closed the area where the homeless were living under lower Wacker Drive, many of that population moved to the doorways of my businesses. I first went to chase them away, telling them that they were hurting business, and then I felt so guilty. I went to my fellow directors on the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, now the Magnificent Mile Association, and said we have to do something to help these people.”
It all began when the pastor at Holy Name Cathedral introduced Hayes to Kathy Donahue Coia, then Catholic Charities vice president of family and parish support. They met monthly for a year with Monsignor Michael Boland, CEO of Catholic Charities, and program director Ellen Gorney. Together they produced a two-sided informational card listing essential services for the homeless and near-homeless. Boland also offered the dining hall at Catholic Charities’ LaSalle Street headquarters which CHI still uses.
Hayes describes herself as restless to expand services at that time: “If it took a year to produce a two-sided card, how long will it take to be able to have a site to provide a hot meal every weeknight? I was determined to move more quickly. Marc Schulman of Eli’s The Place for Steak gave us the first meal, and Eli’s Cheesecake continues to give meals and desserts.”
Although Eli’s closed after 39 spectacular years, Schulman continues his dedication to the program and his cheesecakes, which appeared at the first Taste of Chicago and continued to be the most popular dessert at that event in subsequent years, are offered every holiday and at other celebrations.
Hayes concentrates on the Wednesday night dinners, which are provided by almost 50 restaurants and hotels in the area throughout the year. Many restaurants, businesses, and Northwestern Medicine are current CHI partners and sponsors providing a variety of resources and funding.
“We have to take care of each other. We are motivated to change lives and to get people off the streets. We also want offer programs that our guests want. At one point we asked everyone to fill out a survey, and we didn’t get many back and had to ask ourselves, ‘What’s going on?’ We realized several didn’t know how to read,” Hayes recalls. “We began with reading classes and turned to our volunteers to see what talents they might offer. We presented singing classes that really buoyed up our people, we offer pre-dinner yoga, have a book club, knitting classes, and have theater excursions. Many of these had to be postponed due to COVID, but we hope to get them going again.”
Face-to-face services are offered on Wednesday nights: “We offer haircuts, lists of where bathrooms are available in the city, as well as warm clothing. Loyola University law students donate a lot of socks.”
In addition to a hot meal, small gifts are given each week. One week it might be winter hats, the next, hand wipes. They might ask an organization, for example, to provide $1000 to cover the whole cost of the evening, with $200 being allocated for gifts. Guests also receive regular medical care. Doctors, nurse practitioners, and students take blood pressure readings, will give a variety of tests if requested, and provide wound and foot care.
During the pandemic, CHI expanded its work to assist organizations that were no longer able to serve hot meals. Instead of its usual 130 guests at white-clothed tables with an additional 70 meals to go, CHI attracted donations from over 500 points of contact, enough to deliver up to 5,000 bag lunches weekly to 22 locations all over the city: churches, shelters, and senior meal programs from Evanston to Englewood and as far south as 95th Street. It received Chicago Innovation Awards’ COVID-19 Response Award in December 2021.
“When the pandemic began and more and more places feeding stations closed down, we hired a food truck and went to the people. We worked with Block Club Chicago, the online non-profit news organization, and others to get the word out about your meals,” Doug Fraser shares. “It became organic and just grew on its own.”
Hayes says she feels her father’s influence today.in her weekly volunteer duties: “He was a Louisiana strawberry farmer with just a third-grade education. We drove all over the place to meet people. He just loved people and taught me that everyone should be treated the same,” she remembers. “We try to respect the dignity of all our guests. None of us knows what will happen in our lives. It is shocking to hear their hard stories at times but heartening that some of our guests have become our volunteers. We are very proud that we get eight to ten people off the street each year.”
Anyone would be fortunate to have Jackie Hayes as a Valentine. We are proud to salute her on that love-filled day—we can’t imagine anyone with more love in her heart.
For more information about the Chicago Help Initiative, visit chicagohelpinitiative.org.