The Heartland Alliance Health Holiday Brunch 2019

On Sunday, December 15, Heartland Alliance Health celebrated the Annual Holiday Brunch – a favorite holiday tradition. The event brings together many long-time friends, as well as new ones, during the holiday season to celebrate our participants and support our mission. This year’s event raised over $330,000 to help continue the legacy of groundbreaking and necessary Heartland Alliance Health programs. Together, we are transforming healthcare for those most vulnerable and improving the well-being of our community, including those living with HIV/AIDS.

Thank you to everyone who helped to make this year’s Holiday Brunch such a success!

We would especially like to thank our Premier Sponsor, Diana and Bruce Rauner.

You can check out our short video screened at the event and view photos from the festivities on the Holiday Brunch website. And don’t forget to save the date for next year’s Holiday Brunch: December 6, 2020 at the Hilton Chicago.

At the event, we took a moment to celebrate our 2019 Food for Life Awardees, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth and M·A·C Cosmetics. Senator Duckworth was honored for her work as a champion of health equity and as an advocate for those at risk of losing access to nutritious food through administrative changes to SNAP. M·A·C Cosmetics was honored for their long-time support of Heartland Alliance Health, one of the ten original organizations M·A·C founders Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan chose to support through their Viva Glam line that supports individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS. M·A·C Cosmetics remains a cornerstone partner of HAH more than a quarter-century later. Both of our awardees truly share our vision to provide healthcare, equity, and opportunity for all – thank you and congratulations Senator Duckworth and M·A·C Cosmetics!

This year’s Holiday Brunch also marked the celebration of the 31th anniversary of Vital Bridges – a program that started when a group of passionate, caring individuals banded together to support those with AIDS who were too sick to leave their homes to join others for a holiday meal. 20 year volunteer, Pat Cummings, reflected on how these volunteers provided nutritious food along with warm smiles and welcoming conversation when others had turned away from those living with and dying of AIDS.

“It was not just a struggle for food, but for connection. And it didn’t take long for me to understand I was doing more than just feeding a person in the physical sense. I served hundreds of people – ensuring they had a full belly, friendship, and much more. We were changing lives through connections, simply by letting people know they were loved.”

Today, Vital Bridges continues to be an important resource for those living with HIV and other chronic illnesses. To date, these programs have provided more than 13.5 million meals and nearly 350,000 nutrition counseling sessions to help individuals stabilize and improve their health.

Heartland Alliance Health offers critical supports and services to those who are most vulnerable. We work to make healthcare accessible for everyone, because we believe healthcare is a human right. We ensure that those who are experiencing homelessness, mental illness or addictions, or struggling with multiple chronic illnesses, have a place they can turn to in order to receive the medical care they deserve.

We are incredibly grateful for our community of volunteers, donors, and supporters who continue to build systems for justice and equitable care. We will see you next year, December 6, 2020 at the Hilton Chicago for the next Holiday Brunch!

Look Inside: Ed Stellon of Heartland Alliance Health

Ed StellonEd Stellon has been promoting health equity and harm reduction at Heartland Alliance Health for over 28 years. Starting with outreach and case management in the 1990s, Ed’s work serving vulnerable populations has put him on the front lines of both the HIV epidemic and homelessness crisis in Chicago.

Today, Ed is the executive director of Heartland Alliance Health – where he champions equity and opportunity, two critical tools in achieving greater individual and community health.

What got you into this work?

When I first came to Heartland Alliance, I was a certified addictions counselor. I started my career in a methadone clinic, helping people recover. I’d always been interested in marginalized communities – not in how they face barriers, but more in how they resist and overcome those barriers.

For instance, folks with substance use disorders are often marginalized or have faced a lot of trauma – the resilience I saw in these people always inspired me. I always wanted to be a supporting part of that healing process with them. When I got the chance to work with our homeless participants I jumped at the opportunity.

Why is this HAH’s work important to the community? To the people we serve?

Homelessness is a failure of systems, not people. HAH’s work is important in that we’re addressing the social determinants of health along with providing healthcare. If homelessness gets in the way of you addressing your diabetes, we have to find a way to get you housed – as it is a fundamental part of treatment to your diabetes. This shift in perspective around the social determinants of health is why we’re unique in the healthcare world.

Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you?

I feel like the job of our staff is to support our participants and MY job is to support the staff. There was a time when a staff member came to me feeling very down, as one of her participants had just relapsed. She was really upset and questioning her own effectiveness as a counselor. I stopped her and I reframed her experience.  What saw was a clinician who had worked with someone long enough to build trust and to come back AFTER the relapse – even during one of the most difficult moments in this participant’s life.

As a case worker myself, I’ve been there before. Perspective, community, and hope are all integral to the long term work that we do. In that conversation, I just knew “yep, THIS is what I’m here for.”

What is your favorite part of your job?

By far my favorite part of my job is the relational piece. Unlike a lot of executive directors in healthcare, I sit at the intersection of primary care, mental health services, food nutrition, housing, behavioral health – I get to be around it all. I love getting to be an interpreter of our overall goals through all of these different sectors. We have an overall mission, even though were all doing different work – and I get to be the torch bearer.

How can others help your work?

In addition to direct funding assistance, I think the most helpful thing is to try to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the people we serve. So that when you’re at that dinner party or meeting with colleagues, or when issues come up – you can actually provide a clear, compassionate perspective. We need to be constantly challenging our perception of homelessness or of vulnerable populations – because from that perspective, we can find action, or advocacy, or support. If we could all become a little more mindful, that would be a game changer.

Out in Force for Pride Month

“In 2012, I was losing my battle with addiction and found myself alone and homeless on Chicago’s north side. Life was difficult back then – colder, scarier, and without purpose. More than anything, I found the lack of community to be the hardest part of my time on the streets,” said Bill, a Heartland Alliance participant.

For Bill and many others who identify as LGBTQ, thriving starts with connection – access to resources, healthcare, and community. For over 30 years, Heartland Alliance has connected with those in the community facing substance use disorders, homelessness, or who are living with HIV and AIDS. For individuals who may be experiencing barriers and are seeking an open hand to find their path toward success, we’re happy to lend it.

This Pride Month, Heartland Alliance collaborated with global technology leader, Salesforce, and specifically, its #Outforce employee resource group, to engage in several activities in support of our work to serve vulnerable populations within the LGBTQ community.

“Equality is a core value at Salesforce,” said Ryan Lasure, Salesforce strategic account executive and #Outforce community leader. “We believe that standing up for equal rights for everyone— regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability or otherwise—is central to our path toward equality for all.”

Salesforce held learning sessions with Heartland Alliance staff to hear more about the intersection between LGBTQ issues, and how our work aims to remove barriers and provide access. Heartland Alliance Health’s executive director spoke of the disproportionate number of LGBTQ teens facing homelessness, and our Social IMPACT Research Center representative recapped findings from our current Poverty Report.

Eva, a resident of our LGBTQ-friendly Town Hall Apartments, also participated in the conversation. She was featured in this year’s report that specifically focused on gender disparities as a major cause of poverty.

“I may be living in poverty and I’m queer femme, but look at the dignity I am living in,” Eva said. “If you have a positive attitude and positive places you can fall back on like Heartland Alliance, you can be okay and still have dignity.”

The chance to shed light on issues once shrouded in stigma is an integral piece of highlighting the pride behind PRIDE. Salesforce’s month-long celebration with Heartland Alliance is a testament to its commitment to inclusivity and openness. Those values were put into action with a fundraiser honoring Heartland Alliance staff and participants, raising tens of thousands of dollars to create more opportunities for people like Bill.

“It has been over three years since I was offered housing stability,” Bill said. “Since then, I have been gainfully employed for over four years as a home care worker. I love this because it is my opportunity to give back. We get to help each other in the process, it gives me a purpose. In all, we are living a better life together.”

As we continue to fight against gender inequity, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, homelessness, and other causes of injustice, we would like to thank Salesforce for their generosity and support as we work to achieve equity and opportunity for all.

Black History Month Reflections: James Nichols

Tony Strong

Tony Strong is a community health worker for Heartland Alliance Health, working primarily with participants recovering from substance use disorders. For Black History Month, Tony reflects on his own past – remembering his own story of redemption and the leaders from his hometown that continue to inspire him today. Tony chose to speak about his childhood doctor, James Nichols.

Why did you choose to reflect on this individual?

I chose to speak about someone not so well known in other parts of the world: a local Evanston doctor from my childhood home, Dr. James Nichols. I grew up in Evanston – I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess it was the “bad” part of Evanston. This guy lived right down the street from me. He was a friend of my father’s, and the whole neighborhood really admired him. He did a lot for the community. He would practice out of his home, and wouldn’t charge for individuals who couldn’t pay. He would coach football, and was a leader in our local basketball league. Back then, Evanston was very close knit in our neighborhood. We were really an integrated city, because we all only had one highschool.

I didn’t know any other black doctors. In our neighborhood, our idea of a successful job was working for a city. Riding a garbage truck, working for the parks – those were good jobs. Being a doctor sort of was at the height of all of that. He was revered in our neighborhood. Knowing that he was successful I what he did, and that he gave back so much – it meant a lot. More importantly, the man carried himself with a confidence and a strength. He never seemed worried, he never seemed out of sorts. He showed me – and a lot of us – stability.

How does this person inspire the work you do today?

Dr. Nichols was a man of service, and a black leader and healthcare provider – which we didn’t see much of back then. He was so giving of himself and his time. He was there for the community. After years of living in a lifestyle that wasn’t helping me, back when I was using, I reached a point where I was on the edge of snapping. I’ve been sober since 2013, and ever since I’ve been doing service work. This is life changing for me. You have to give all that you have in order to keep what you have. You have to be helping somebody to continue to thrive. It’s a way to give back to my higher power, to stay humble, and stay grateful. It’s a privilege for me to be of service. I cherish this opportunity.

What will it take to achieve the world this individual fought for?

The neighborhoods and communities I lived in as a child have been lost. There was diversity, there was opportunity, there was sacrifice and investment. We need to understand that those living around us are OF us. It’s about compassion, and not throwing people away. Today, in society, in our justice system, in the drug epidemics facing us – we forget to look at the individual, and only look at the crime. That has left a void in our communities. The crack epidemic sent so many fathers away forever, and left generations to raise themselves. Society is one whole piece of fabric – and we need to understand that. There is strength in all of us to serve, to volunteer, to trust others.

Supporting Hunger Action Month

Heartland Alliance’s vision is to achieve equity and opportunity for all. We believe that by ensuring everyone in society has access to safety, health, housing, education, economic opportunity and justice, individuals are better equipped to exit poverty and achieve stability. As part of health and well-being, there is a critical need for proper food and nutrition.  

According to Feeding America, over 40 million people are struggling with hunger. This number includes 12 million children. Often these families have to make a choice between keeping the lights on or feeding their family, or paying a medical bill or buying food.

Throughout the year and especially during September – Hunger Action Month – Heartland Alliance provides supports for those who are hungry.  Laura Ritland Samnadda, Heartland Alliance Health’s Food and Nutrition Manager, has dedicated her career to helping others escape the daily crisis of food insecurity.

“People with food insecurity tend to struggle with housing, transportation, medical bills, employment, and overall poverty. But they might also be your neighbor who just lost a job and is just trying to get by paying the rent and utilities – it could literally be anyone at this point.”

Over the past three decades, one of Heartland Alliance’s primary goals has been to end hunger for as many individuals as possible – helping people achieve not only their health and nutrition goals, but achieving overall life goals as well.

To increase healthy food and nutrition options for participants, we employ a team of traveling dietitians that provide community-wide cooking classes, as well as partner with agencies like the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Heartland Human Care Service’s FarmWorks urban farm.  Additionally, we have an advocacy team who promotes stronger food assistance programs, and a city-wide system of food pantries, known as Vital Bridges, dedicated to serving some of the most at-risk populations.

Vital Bridges is a participant choice site – meaning that the pantries don’t want to have people walk away with food they aren’t going to use. We are especially focused on creating a welcoming atmosphere for those who need our services, so that visitors are encouraged by the options provided.

Heartland Alliance Health Community Dietician Elizabeth Murphy believes strongly in that approach.

“Everybody deserves access to food – not just any food, but good, healthy food that nourishes you. A lack of access to food is connected with environment and social factors that can keep people unhealthy or unsafe.”

According to the National Education Association, hungry children have lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss it entirely. These adverse experiences can compound and if hunger continues to ensue,  the likelihood of escaping poverty decreases. According Bertha Segura De Gonzalez, coordinator for the Vital Bridges food pantries, the question of who eats in a household is a question asked far too often.

“Often times, we are the only source of food for the people we serve. A participant will feed their children before eating, sometimes there are no leftovers for the participant to eat.”

Shopping in our pantries is only the first step to healthier outcomes.  Our staff are quick to work together to provide more access to supports for the participant. Oftentimes, we are able to connect them with other Heartland Alliance programming – using our housing, healthcare, or employment services to help them find safety and stability.

At Heartland Alliance, we prefer to focus on the “action” part of Hunger Action Month and according to Samnadda, there are many ways for all of us to take a stand for those who are food insecure.

“Advocate, donate, and volunteer.  The final version of the Farm Bill that houses SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other feeding programs is being voted on soon.  Please call or write your representatives and ask them to protect SNAP. “

Supporters also can join us as we near our annual Harvest for Hope food drive. This year, our food and nutrition team is especially in need of financial support.  As we strive to continue providing choice and flexibility for our participants, funds raised allow the staff to buy food and personal care items for specific individuals and families as needed.  Please click here or contact Celeste Johnson for more information – (312) 660-1390,

Meet Heartland Alliance’s Food and Nutrition Manager Laura Ritland Samnadda

Laura Ritland Samnadda is Heartland Alliance’s Food and Nutrition Manager.  She has seen firsthand just how powerfully the fear of hunger can affect a person’s well-being.  Her efforts to provide access to healthy food and nutritional counseling have benefited countless participants. A dietitian and humanitarian at heart, she finds hope in the very people she serves.

What got you into this work?

As a dietitian, I worry about the food people have access to and the choices they have to make living in a food desert.  Getting a chance to serve individuals who need services like the ones I provide has always been the goal.

Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?

According to 2016 Map the Meal Gap data, there are over 1.4 million Illinoisans experiencing hunger every day.  That’s 1 in 9 people.  But when you look at Cook County specifically, those numbers turn into 1 in 7 people.  What we know is that food insecurity and poverty go hand-in -hand and affects people in every neighborhood.

Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

I remember one participant who came to Vital Bridges and told me that he didn’t know when he was going to eat again.  He was older and frail, and he showed me how his belt was tightened to the last notch of his belt to hold up his pants.  He didn’t qualify for SNAP.  Seeing him struggle with hunger was incredibly difficult, yet I felt proud that we were there for him when he needed food.  This same participant still comes to our food pantry and he’s happy, vibrant, and at a healthy weight.  He sees the dietitians monthly for a check-in and vitamins.


What is your favorite part of your job?

I’m so grateful to be a part of the food and nutrition team at Heartland Alliance Health – who provides food and nutrition services to people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and other chronic diseases.  We have three food pantries a part of the Vital Bridges food program that serves people who are living with HIV and AIDS. These pantries are located in Englewood, West Garfield Park, and Edgewater. These three communities have food insecurity rates of 20-57.8% of residents. Knowing that we are making a difference for those who need it most is all I need!

How can others help your work?

Advocate, donate, and volunteer.  The final version of the Farm Bill that  houses SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other feeding programs is being voted on soon.  Please call or write your representatives and ask them to protect SNAP.

Donating items to our food programs is always helpful, and you also can volunteer at our food pantries.

Bringing Healthcare to Englewood

Dr. Audrey Tanksley, Medical Director, Heartland Alliance Health

What does it take to design a transformative health center that provides care that extends beyond a single visit? There are the obvious indicators like effective equipment and knowledgeable staff, but what’s equally as important is a commitment to promoting overall health and individualized care plans. For Brandy, it means feeling welcomed and comfortable.

“I’ve been to too many doctors that had attitudes and judgments, but not here. Here it’s love. It’s family.”

Brandy and her two daughters were among Heartland Alliance Health’s first participants at the new Englewood Health Center located at the corner of Halsted Street and Garfield Boulevard in Chicago’s South Side.

Brandy and her family live just a few minutes away and had wondered what sort of construction was happening on their block. Instead of another corner store or check cashing facility, they were thrilled to hear their new neighbor was a health center.

“You need a vehicle to do anything in this town. It makes taking care of your business real difficult. Things like school, grocery shopping, you know the day-to-day can be real exhausting when the things you need aren’t in your neighborhood.”

But as it turned out, getting care from the Englewood Health Center was simple. In April, Brandy walked in to the new facility to find out what services were available, and ended up scheduling an appointment for the very next day. The kids were off for spring break, so they were able to receive a regular physical. That was only the beginning. They received much more than they had anticipated.

“We did checkups and got our prescriptions filled. They had a therapist in that day too, so my daughter got to let off some steam – and I did too. It was all so easy. I have to be honest; I was shocked to receive a follow-up call from them the next day. They had our prescriptions ready. They wanted to see if everything was going well. I could feel that they cared.”

That’s exactly what Dr. Audrey Tanksley wants to hear. Heartland Alliance Health’s new medical director expects everyone who visits the health center to get the attention and quality of care that Brandy and her family received.

Brandy and Dr. Tanksley at the Englwood Health Center

“We are going to be the premier. We’re going to be the best to those who haven’t received the best in the past.”

Dr. Tanksley grew up a few miles south of Englewood in the Fernwood neighborhood. She grew up going to a health center near her home, and she understands what it means to have such a lifeline nearby.

“This work is so necessary and fulfilling. Providing community members with experts who can provide real solutions, that sort of impact on the neighborhood is priceless – but only if we do it right.”

Heartland Alliance Health is doing everything it can to achieve those standards. The new center boasts a one-stop shop for services in a neighborhood where many healthcare facilities have vacated. Participants can access in-house lab work, pharmacy services, primary care and mental health services, substance use counseling, insurance assistance, and countless other resources.

But more importantly, Dr. Tanksley wants participants to feel confident using these services. Building on Heartland Alliance’s strengths-based approach, she sees this new center as an opportunity for individuals to take control of their health and their lives.

“I believe in providing people with the tools and supports, so that they can be empowered to manage their health. That requires education, patience, and compassion. I want people to get involved and engaged with their health for the long haul.”

From Brandy’s point of view, the new center is already on the right track. She is excited to learn more about the other services Heartland Alliance can offer her family to help set them up for success.

“Dr. Tanksley listens. I feel like I’ve known her forever, and I know I’m getting the truth about our health from her. It makes me want to see how else I can work with these people to help me succeed. I’ve told everybody to come here – to come join the family.”

Read more about those we serve:

Heartland Alliance’s Past, Present and Future in Englewood

Heartland Alliance believes society is better for everyone when all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. And as a community health organization, we are dedicated to transforming care for the most vulnerable – particularly people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, substance use issues or struggling with multiple chronic illnesses – improving health for all and for the well-being of our community.

Our healthcare work in Englewood began 20 years ago, when we opened up our South Side Vital Bridges food pantry for those living with HIV/AIDs. In 2016, we began expanding services and developed a “pop-up” health center and medical outreach team, dedicated to providing on-sight healthcare services to 15 local shelters in Chicago’s south side.

“Outreach is probably the most important part of our job. It’s where participant engagement begins, in the space that is comfortable to the person we are trying to serve,” said Sarah Dickson, Heartland Alliance Health Nurse Practitioner. “It’s where people begin to trust, and where they begin to heal.” That very outreach has shown a tremendous need for health services in the community, as the area has a greater incidence rate of heart disease and diabetes, and fewer cancer screenings. In fact, because of the poverty, and the lack of accessible and affordable healthcare, Englewood and the surrounding communities have a lower life expectancy versus the rest of Chicago. There are 58 percent more low-income people in Englewood when compared to Chicago, and they have 16 percent less access to healthcare. 

Heartland Alliance’s Philosophy and New Englewood Health Center

Last July, we broke ground on our Englewood Health Center. Englewood is a community that has increased presence of homelessness, with limited access and resources dedicated to healthcare. Over the past nine months, HAH has worked to build a health center that will address many of the health-related issues people in the community often face – including primary medical, substance use treatment, mental health/psychiatry, insurance assistance, medical case management, specialty referral care, and chronic disease management including HIV/AIDS care.

But what sets Heartland Alliance Health apart from many other health care organizations is its commitment to trauma-informed, strengths-based philosophy that allows patients to take control of their health goals.

“We continuously practice our strengths-based approach by taking into account peoples’ choices and have participants lead us,” said Joan Liautaud, HAH Senior Director of Clinical Operations.

Through compassionate practices and a spectrum of mental and behavioral health services, Heartland Alliance Health works to help individuals build lasting, meaningful lives. Our thirty years of experience working with hard to reach populations has developed in us a solid understanding of the need for housing-first policies and harm-reduction practices.

 “Our first focus is to provide support to individuals and their decisions. I think the basic premise of both the housing first and harm reduction philosophy is that we get people off of the street as soon as possible. Our responsibility is to try to help bring the indiviudal along to be more successful by helping to reduce barriers.”

And now, Heartland Alliance Health is proud to have the resources to do that at a much larger scale in the heart of Englewood. The 7,900 square foot building is has ten exam rooms, two triage rooms, and a soon-to-be pharmacy. Additionally, the building provides showers and laundry to support people who are homeless or unstably housed. Heartland Alliance Health also provides insurance assistance and counseling. 

In partnership with different community groups including Teamwork Englewood, R.A.G.E., and Whole Foods Englewood, Heartland Alliance Health has been connecting with community members in an effort to build trust and long-lasting relationship with the people they intend to serve for years to come.

We are thrilled to open a permanent solution for those living in the community by opening our third Chicago health center. Be sure to tell friends, family, and neighbors we are ready to serve you!

The Heartland Alliance Health Englewood Health Center is open Monday through Friday 8:30 AM- 5:00 PM. Appointments can be made by calling 773-275-2586 and walk-ins are welcome.

Heartland Alliance Health Englewood Health Center
5501 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60621

Heartland Alliance Health Promotes Well-being in Englewood

The Englewood neighborhood is a buzz around the March 20 opening of the Health Center located at 5501 S. Halsted Street. In anticipation of this much needed addition to the community, team members have been in full effect throughout the neighborhood during the month of February. In partnership with different community groups including Teamwork Englewood and Whole Foods, Heartland Alliance Health (HAH) is poised for a successful opening with a number of participant appointments already scheduled!

In addition to HAH outreach teams canvassing the neighborhood and spreading the word, community members got to learn more and engage with staff who provided informational materials and promotional giveaways at the Englewood Whole Foods location. Additionally, people visiting the store were invited to attend a healthy fare cooking demonstration presented by a HAH dietician where attendees learned to prepare Thai peanut chicken zucchini noodles.

Shoppers also had another way to engage with Heartland Alliance through Whole Foods’ cause marketing promotion, Soap for Good. From February 21-27, Whole Foods stores throughout Chicagoland sold Alafia’s Good Soap for just $1. During this time, shoppers could buy a bar of soap for themselves and another for Heartland Alliance. To make it even better, each Whole Foods store will match the soap donated to Heartland Alliance, up to 100 bars. Whole Foods’ 13 Chicagoland area stores will be contributing nearly 5,000 bars for participants in need, with the Englewood store leading the area in sales and donations.

The Heartland Alliance Health Englewood Health Center is slated to open March 20, 2018 with office hours of Monday through Friday 8:30 AM- 5:00 PM. Appointments can be made by calling 773-275-2586 and walk-ins are welcome.