Participant to Volunteer

chanelOnce alone, now a beacon: Chanel

Tolerance is a difficult virtue to come by – acceptance even more so. When the rest of society doesn’t even tolerate you as an individual, it’s hard to find acceptance even from within. For longtime Vital Bridges participant and volunteer, Chanel,  achieving acceptance and growth has been a 30 year journey. For twenty of those years, Heartland Alliance has been by her side.

“As a trans woman, there are a lot of people out there who treat you like you’re the scourge of the earth. Not here, I’m human here at this pantry.”

Even with the care and support of her family, the world was not as ready to accept a young, black, trans woman. Success and independence requires society to allow you to participate. Finding a job is that much more difficult when your driver’s license contradicts the name and gender you identify with – especially in the mid 80s.

Chanel found herself homeless, addicted, HIV positive, and alone on the north side of Chicago. Hungry and without anyone to turn to, she was referred to Vital Bridges, Heartland Alliance’s food pantry on Chicago’s north side. Lori Cannon – Co Founder and program manager at the north side pantry – saw both extreme need and extreme potential in Chanel.

Stepping into Grocery Land – the unofficial nickname of the Vital Bridges pantry on the north side – the wild paintings, feather boas and goofy pictures are the first things you see; the warmth is what you feel.  Acceptance envelops those who walk through the doors and emanates from the smiles of the folks behind the counter.

“To be in need makes you feel a certain kind of way. But when I walked through those doors, there was… a spirit about the place.”

Here Chanel was, beginning to once again accept herself and find help with her housing and health, but Lori still saw more within her. Chanel’s experience with Heartland Alliance allowed her to discover a new desire within herself – a desire to serve. She began to help in whatever ways she could around the pantry. Moving produce, stocking boxes, cataloging inventory – and helping others feel welcome.

Chanel has now been a volunteer for Vital Bridges for two decades.  She knows the north-side pantry like the back of her hand, and knows the people of her community even better. She spends much of her time speaking with younger trans women and helping them find acceptance and purpose, and encourages those who are looking for that purpose to come to her pantry. Chanel is now a mainstay at Vital Bridges, and her passion for the pantry can hardly be contained.

“This is without a doubt the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life so far. When you find your passion in life, understanding yourself and your world just makes sense.”