Chicago Family Volunteers Together Supporting the Unhoused Community
Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Cherneecia, Callia, and Cayen. Read their story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.
Cherneecia Muhammad, a 39-year-old cosmetologist and educator, was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in the church and has volunteered throughout her life. Her dad was involved in politics, so he was often lending his time to find ways to build the local community. Their family often found themselves manning food pantries around the holidays. As an adult, Cherneecia has passed on the tradition.
“I’ve done it. If I pass it on to my children. My children will pass it on. What kind of world we have everybody pitched in and taught their children,” she says. “I think we would have a different community, especially in different parts of Chicago, if we all thought the same.”
Her kids are getting an early start. Callia is a caring nine-year-old who participates in horseback riding, swimming, and singing. She loves rescuing animals and all things pink.
Cayen, 17, has already had many opportunities to follow his passion for acting on a professional level. Some of his credits include Men in Black 3, WACO, and Broadway’s “The Lion King”. As a senior in high school, he’s also a student athlete.
“My mom always believes in doing the right thing. She believes in giving back to the community. And that’s something she instilled in me and my little sister,” he says.
When Cayen was around Callia’s age, he met Jahkil Maeem Jackson, founder of Project I Am, and his family has been helping his friend with his mission ever since. Project I Am focuses on supporting the homeless by handing out “blessing bags” designed to offer everything a person needs to maintain good hygiene while being small enough for easy transport.
“When I’m volunteering, I pack the bags with toothbrushes, towels, lotion and snacks. I do it, because it makes me feel good to help someone else,” Callia says.
Cherneecia and her kids have worked almost monthly for the last seven years packing thousands of bags and setting up and tearing down before and after packing parties. Occasionally they deliver, dropping off boxes at shelters or schools with children in need. Not even the pandemic could curb their work ethic, a time when many people lost their homes.
“A lot of homeless people were getting sick [with COVID-19]. There were a lot of people that couldn’t get to the care they needed, or they didn’t have masks or things they needed to stay clean,” Cayen adds.
During the worst of it, Jahkil would bring over boxes of supplies, and they would follow up with a Zoom call to bring volunteers together for the human connection that was often lost during lockdown. Delivery also needed to be altered to follow public heath guidelines.
Responding to the additional needs, Project I Am started including things like hand sanitizer, gloves, and of course, masks in the blessing bags in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus amongst the most vulnerable.
Proving that location is irrelevant to their mission, the organization also sends bags out of state and even did a bagging for people in Ukraine struggling with the effects of war.
“Whoever needs them, it doesn’t matter where you live. You could be in California. If they need them, they will send them there,” Cherneecia says.
Each family member gleans satisfaction from different aspects of volunteering. Cayen thinks about each bag going to a different person, a motivating factor for maximizing the number he creates. Cherneecia drives by tent cities and takes comfort knowing that she is giving them things they need but is also reminded that people in need aren’t always visible.
“[Volunteering] has definitely helped open my eyes to other people that may be in need, and they may not say anything. It may not look like they’re homeless. They may be very embarrassed by it, so you have to be very careful.”
Callia especially likes the community-building aspect of their work, citing how much she enjoys taking a break to grab a doughnut with fellow volunteers.
“The kids normally do have fun, because as they’re working, they’re racing. They’re eating snacks and listening to music. They’re dancing. They’re doing all kinds of stuff by doing blessing bags. They have fun doing it,” Cherneecia mentions.
Food is a universal unifier, and as they prepare for Thanksgiving, they will, no doubt, be grateful for the dishes on their table. How will they spend the day? Together, of course. After going to Callia’s choir concert, they’ll cook as a family.
“My mom’s going to make her famous lasagna!” Callia exclaims.
When they’re not packing blessing bags, they travel, cook, sing and their dad/stepdad/husband garden. Their joy is palpable, and they share it with their community.
“I think it’s really good to bring a community together, so you can show that you’re working as one team and people will have a support system, a support team,” Cherneecia says.
Starting with a strong familial support system, they do the same for the people who are struggling, and we’re all thankful for their service.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Cherneecia, Cayen, and Callia? Find local volunteer opportunities.