Once alone, now a beacon

chanelIf I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive – Audrey Lorde

Tolerance is often a difficult virtue to come by – acceptance even more so. When the rest of society doesn’t tolerate you as an individual, it’s hard to find acceptance from within. Longtime Vital Bridges participant and volunteer, Chanel’s experience with acceptance and growth has been a thirty year journey. For twenty of those years, we have 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.”

Vital Bridges, which became a part of Heartland Health Outreach in 2011, was one of the first frontline organizations serving LGBT people living with HIV and AIDS in the 80s. Their mission was to ensure that people living with the disease weren’t just fed, but recognized.

Around that same period, Chanel was a teenager living in Chicago’s south side. With an unusual amount of family support for the time, she transitioned at the age of 15.

“You know, I would say I had a picture perfect childhood. I have a great family, and I was very lucky when I was young. But it really did go downhill from there.”

Even with the care and support of her family, Chanel’s community was not ready to accept a young, black, trans woman. A career and financial stability were hard to achieve because job applications always came with a request to see a driver’s license or birth certificate that contradicted the name and gender Chanel identified with.

Looking for work proved fruitless for years. Chanel’s drive to be independent, along with non-existent opportunities in the job market, led her down a different path.

“I wasn’t going to steal or anything – but I had to make it on my own. I was very proud when I was young, and I had to find a way to make money.”

Like many in her position, Chanel ended up in sex work. She started out in adult films, and continued from there. Chanel struggled with a world that wouldn’t accept her for who she was – except for when she was being objectified. To escape that reality, Chanel turned to drugs and alcohol to help numb the fear and shame.

“The things people said to me, that who I thought I was. I wasn’t living in my reality. I was living in what others thought I should. Then people are telling you to snort things, drink things… It makes that life easier to ignore.”

After years of that lifestyle, Chanel found herself alone on the north side of Chicago, homeless, addicted, and HIV positive. Hungry and without anyone to turn to, someone recommended she check out Vital Bridges. Lori Cannon – co-founder and program manager at the north side pantry – saw both extreme need and extreme potential in Chanel.

You see, when you step into Grocery Land – the unofficial nickname of the pantry – things change. The wild paintings and goofy pictures hung throughout give the space a specific type of warmth – a warmth many of its visitor haven’t experienced in a long time. Acceptance is broadcasted out of the feather boas hanging on the chairs, support 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.”

Chanel began to identify with the qualities of the pantry. She loved the dignity provided by the opportunity to choose what food she received. She loved the fun and sometimes silly nature of the volunteers. She loved the very essence of what Grocery Land stood for.

chanel-2While shopping around the pantry one day, Lori stopped Chanel and looked her right in the eyes.

“She had this very earnest look, and she told me ‘Chanel, I can’t wait for the day that you come in through these doors at your fullest potential.’” For Chanel, the situation was extremely motivating. “You know, I’m a big believer in the laws of attraction and the power of words.”

Here she was, just beginning to once again accept herself and find stability in her housing and health, and Lori still saw more within her. The experience allowed Chanel 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 at the north side pantry for two decades. She knows it 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, helping them find acceptance and purpose, and encouraging them to come to the pantry. Chanel is a mainstay at Grocery Land, 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.”