Aleta Clark says she was 18 months old when her mom dropped her off at a Chicago South Side police station and walked off.
Nearly 30 years later, Clark walked into another station on the South Side in February and noticed a lobby filled with people seeking shelter from the cold night.
She came back the next night, this time with food. And every night since. Around 10:30 p.m., she pulls up to the Area Central police station at Wentworth Avenue and 51st Street with her SUV filled with meals and drinks and clothes.
The regulars have come to call the station Club 51.
“They are my friends, I break bread with them,” said Clark, 28, an advocate for the homeless and an activist against violence. “I don’t judge people.”
At Christmas, Clark bought 32 jackets and shoes as gifts for her friends, as well as McDonald’s gift cards.
Clark says she knows what the feeling of hopelessness can do. She has been told her mother was addicted to heroin when she dropped Clark at the police station and later died of an overdose. Clark said she spent her life in foster homes. She was split from her siblings and was placed in a home where she said she was abused.
“At a young age I lost my innocence,” Clark said. “I had to forgive everybody who ever hurt me for myself.”
Clark’s adoptive mother died when she was 12 and Clark began to run away. She was kicked out of school, placed in a special school and generally labeled a problem child, she said.
There she met a counselor named Ron Strong, who encouraged her schooling and helped her deal with her anger.
“I’ve suffered and I’ve been through a lot, but it’s made me the person I am today,” said Clark, a single mother of an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.
She credits Strong with inspiring her to become a mentor for about 30 girls at South Shore International College Prep High School. She also got involved in community projects aimed at “those in need.”
She has started the “Hugs No Slugs” anti-violence campaign. She sells T-shirts and other apparel with the logo so she can buy meals. She’s a regular user of social media to advocate for her causes, and goes by the name “Englewood Barbie” after the South Side neighborhood where she was raised.
Police have been supportive and allowed her to keep giving out meals even after a controversial photo was posted showing Clark kneeling between two officers with raised fists in support of nationwide protests over police treatment of minority members.
One recent Sunday night, several people ran out into the cold to greet Clark as she pulled up to the station. A South Side business owner had donated dinner that night: Pans were filled with baked chicken, sweet potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, collard greens with smoked turkey, blueberry pie, cornbread and rolls.
The matriarch of the group, called “Momma,” took over, giving directions, serving food and generally keeping order.
“Momma, I will help,” yelled Johnny, a 30-year-old man who said he got baptized that day.
The group had all reached a point in life where they had lost nearly everything. But this night belonged to them.
“My hope is that we don’t forget about the people who are in need,” Clark said. “I want to open people’s heart to realize it’s not hard to care.”