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Comfort and hope: Open Hand reaches out to people with AIDS

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One cold, dreary Christmas Eve five years ago Lori Cannon packed her car with food and headed off to the south side to deliver meals to men, women, and children incapacitated by AIDS. That was the humble start of Open Hand Chicago, a $1-million-a-year, meals-on-wheels operation that delivers dinners and lunches to hundreds of people all over the city. It's a social-service success story, but Cannon says, "I wish we could shut down. I wish there was no need for us."

Some 10,000 Chicagoans are now HIV positive. To bring food and comfort to homebound clients, Open Hand has recruited 325 volunteers, who deliver 775 meals a day to 400 clients on 25 routes. (Open Hand can always use more volunteers; call 665-1000.) "Our clients include single men, gay couples, husbands and wives, children, and whole families," says Cannon. "We've never turned anyone away. For me it's an honor and privilege to offer comfort, hope, or civility in any way I can."

These days the meals are made and packaged at Thorek Hospital, 850 W. Irving Park. But at the start Matthew Hamilton, Cannon, and Open Hand's other founders operated out of Ann Sather's, 929 W. Belmont. "We started with 35 clients," says Cannon. "We find our clients through case managers who call and say, 'I have a client who's unable to provide meals for himself.'"

Over the years routes have been set up in such disparate neighborhoods as the Gold Coast and Humboldt Park. Volunteers must take a training course. "We have certain rules," says Ralph Povlitz, a hospital administrator who's a volunteer. "We never send a driver out alone. He's always accompanied by what we call a runner, the guy who brings food to the client."

Another rule is confidentiality. "That's a necessity, what with all the landlords trying to evict tenants, employers trying to fire employees, and insurance companies looking for any reason to drop coverage," says Cannon. "The stigma of AIDS has not gone away."

The importance of confidentiality hit home a few years ago, after an incident involving a client in Woodlawn. "This girl we had volunteering was approached on the street by a woman who said, 'I see you people coming here every night delivering those meals--how can I get on that program?'" says Cannon. "The girl said the absolute worst thing: "Well, first of all, you have to have AIDS.' At that point the damage was done. Word got around, and people in the neighborhood started harassing the client. They treated him like a leper. He ended up getting kicked out of his building. I can't tell you how much we regret that."

Volunteers come from the city and suburbs and include a judge, a television reporter, doctors, teachers, and even a newspaper gossip columnist. For the most part, they do their routes with few problems, though there have been a few run-ins with the police. "One team of successful businesswomen was out delivering in a brand-new black Mercedes in Austin," says Cannon. "Two cops followed them through the entire route, watching them go from house to house with these plastic bags of meals. At the last stop the cops pulled the ladies over and said, 'What the hell do you have in those bags?' Of course the girls were trying to maintain their composure and not reveal the names of clients. They said, "We're with a meals-on-wheels program.' The cops chuckled and said, 'Gee, girls, we think what you're doing is wonderful. But if we didn't have to be in this neighborhood we wouldn't be. We think you're nuts.'"

Two other volunteers were actually taken into custody after police pulled them over on the west side. "If the police see two white men driving a nice car in a run-down neighborhood they immediately think of one thing--drugs," says Cannon. "These two guys got pulled over and frisked. When they tried to explain, the cops wouldn't listen--they were too proud of themselves for making a bust. After that I called each police district to tell the commanders about our program."

A typical route begins at about 5 PM, when drivers and runners arrive at Thorek to pick up the meals. Povlitz goes every Wednesday to meet a partner, Larry Spang, founder of a dental clinic for PWAs scheduled to open in January. They've worked together on a route in Uptown for almost a year.

"I have many reasons for helping," says Spang, who's been a volunteer for five years. "I like driving--it's good to get out of the house. I have AIDS myself. But I'm really healthy. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I feel that if I take care of people now someone will be good to me when I need it."

The two men start with a few stops west of Ashland Avenue, and then swing east into Uptown. They move quickly, Spang pulling up to the curb and Povlitz dashing out, food in hand. "It goes faster on cold nights like this," says Povlitz. "People don't want to keep their doors open too long. They don't want to get a draft."

A woman who's wearing only a robe and slippers answers her door. It's dark in her apartment. A TV whines somewhere in the distance. "Thank you," she says.

The food is for her roommate. Povlitz isn't sure what the roommate's relationship with her is--lover, husband, brother, friend. "It doesn't matter to me," he says. "I don't ask questions. I don't ask how they contracted AIDS. That's none of my business. I'm just delivering. Of course if they want to talk, if they need some outside touch, I'm here."

At the next stop Povlitz is greeted by a wiry Hispanic man in an apartment filled with kids. "You see things that can just break your heart," says Spang. "I had a stop for about a year of a family where both parents and three of their ten children had AIDS. This was on the west side. Then the father died, leaving the mother with absolutely no money. Usually I don't leave the car, but in this case there was so much food to carry up and down the stairs I had no choice. I've seen some raw sides of life, but they had a rough road. Such poverty. Such substandard living. I don't know what happened to them."

Once in Uptown they head along several residential streets, passing a curious blend of rehabbed and run-down apartment buildings, single-family homes and two-flats. Spang points to a clump of young men standing on a corner. "Those are drug dealers," he says. "They're here every week. I've had some dealers come right up to the car and offer their wares. Needless to say, I've never accepted."

Spang and Povlitz say they've never been hassled by people they meet on their route. "Never even heard a disparaging word," says Povlitz. "I've had to walk right through some drug deals, too. 'Ah, excuse me, fellas. Comin' through.' Maybe they sense I'm there for a good purpose. They know I ain't the pizza man."

At the next stop, a basement apartment, a child answers the door. "Hi, Ralph, how ya' doin'?" the mother calls.

"Fine. And you?"

"It's my foot, Ralph. I think I hurt it."

"Aw, geez. I hope you didn't break it. You gotta see a doctor."

In a nearby apartment building Povlitz and three other passengers squeeze into a small elevator that shakes and groans as it rises. Kids dart in and out of different rooms on the fifth floor, where a gaunt, bare-chested man waits for his meal. "Bless you, Ralph," he says.

"How is everything?" Povlitz asks. "Are you OK?"

"As good as I'm gonna get," the man answers.

The second to last stop is a high rise on Lake Shore Drive, where someone I'll call Henry lives. He's too tired to greet Povlitz. He lies on his mattress on the living-room floor, a game show blaring from a tiny color TV a few inches from his head, while Povlitz leaves the food in the kitchen.

"I'd better have the office give him a call to see if he has to go to the hospital," says Povlitz as he heads down the hall. "He looks pretty bad."

On the way back to Thorek Spang and Povlitz exchange a few jokes. They say it's tough to stay upbeat in the face of so much death.

"We've lost six or seven clients this year," says Povlitz. "I didn't go to their funerals. I have too many funerals to go to as it is. I've lost about 65 friends to AIDS. Sometimes I fear people are so bombarded with sickness and violence they just don't want to hear about AIDS anymore. We shouldn't have to think about it every minute of the day. But there are people out there who need to be helped. You can't change the world, but you should do what you can to make it better."

Back at Thorek they turn in their food bags and give the night staff an update on Henry. Someone makes a call, and the next morning an ambulance takes Henry to the hospital.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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