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A Safe Haven president connects leadership with action

A Safe Haven reaps a garden of talent
A Safe Haven reaps a garden of talent
Photo by Janet Barrett

Meaningful occupation and a proclivity for driving others to achieve the same characterize Neli Vazquez-Rowland, president of A Safe Haven, with a leadership style which resonates from the ground up. Through A Safe Haven, Vazquez-Rowland helps envelop those suffering from crises such as homelessness, substance abuse, and other setbacks, by offering life skills training, personal caseworkers and more, to complete the recovery program.

Visitors to the large, open glass building at Roosevelt and Sacramento are greeted by a huge mural reflecting the diverse neighborhood; and inside, an active scene, people signing people in at the desk, residents coming and going, and a view of a large “quad,” a new playground, and community gardens. Another floor presents gleaming kitchen and café facilities suitable for the many catering events and three square meals a day that residents serve and enjoy.

“We’re operating in a food desert, yet we serve three healthy meals a day, 228,000 meals a year, and we graduate 30 culinary graduates a year. Each person receives eight hours a quarter in nutritional education,” said Vazquez Rowland. She added that the shelter teaches responsibility and accountability, teaches cooking techniques to kids, and addresses signature health issues, such as obesity, blood pressure, and diabetes. It also operates a community food bank.

The growing activities and accomplishments of A Safe Haven are proof that Vazquez-Rowland has the jump on opportunities.

To name a few:

  • The Chicago Auto Show hosts a food drive on its behalf; last fall it hosted its first ever Run! To End Homelessness 5k in Douglas Park, with a Live Aid Concert to End Homelessness; then staff ran to catch a plane to a NYC fundraiser featuring Joan Kennedy.
  • Vazquez-Rowland and veterans in A Safe Haven’s program were invited to participate in research for Lyric Opera director Peter Sellars’ production of Hercules, in regard to the feelings that veterans face upon their return to their homeland, with a dress rehearsal performance, and panel presentation.
  • Representatives from A Safe Haven also attended the play “Ann” in Chicago this past year, with a similar reception, which added to the fun and more exposure to the cause, exemplifying former Texas Governor Ann Richards as someone who overcame her own childhood issues to fight social injustice.
  • And A Safe Haven hosted a band concert comprised of a group of veterans involved in the Afghan war, who juggled their leaves to reunite and perform at the facility, bringing along friends and family from their faraway homes.

Vazquez-Rowland expressed amazement at the desire of the veterans to come here to perform, as she has toward many of the event opportunities that have come the shelter’s way. She appears to pursue them enthusiastically, no matter the effort. Yet her welcoming and gracious demeanor holds with it high expectations.

  • Each year A Safe Haven commends others for “just doing the right thing,” she said, in regard to giving voice to its same causes, with its Champions for Recovery program, which honors leaders in the community. With such recognition ceremonies and an annual volunteer appreciation event, Vazquez-Rowland says, “We recognize and also connect people, to get to know each other as like-minded people and encourage them to stay in touch, work together and with A Safe Haven. We look for people to recognize from a distance, who are doing amazing work to rebuild society.”

Residents of A Safe Haven journey through a Continuum of Care and go through extensive training. In turn, they are presented with job, life skills, and residential opportunities at several turns on their way to self-sufficiency.

Vazquez-Rowland and staff have established partnerships to facilitate contracting of its various services, and utilize volunteer efforts. A Safe Haven also supports its own residents by employing them in various endeavors, too.

  • Food Service and Culinary Arts Training program (Aramark, Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development) and
  • Landscape Program (City of Chicago and others).
  • It also employs residents in a Sales and Marketing Enterprise, providing them with skills in sales, communications and telemarketing.
  • And some graduates of A Safe Haven’s program go on to become case workers themselves at the shelter.
  • “A Safe Haven Harvest”organic urban gardens at its main facility (Yellow Tractor Program and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) and new veterans facility.
  • A Safe Haven Build Playground (KaBoom!, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group; Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Family)

A strong faction of A Safe Haven’s clientele is comprised of veterans, and this year it opened the doors to its Veteran Suites.

“It provides camaraderie as they work and practice self-sufficiency in a safe environment,” said Vazquez-Rowland. “They can live in the facilities for up to two years, while those who need it are transitioning with a soft landing, versus ‘crash and burn.’ They can deal with the reasons for they are in crisis; it anchors them in the community.”

Both Vazquez-Rowland and advisory board member Brandon Smith exemplify strong leaders who, like most people to an extent, have had personal family experience with recovery from addiction. Neli and her husband Brian Rowland used their financial expertise and awareness of the need to provide housing for those in recovery, as opportunities to give back to those less fortunate, creating A Safe Haven in the neighborhood from which Vazquez-Rowland hailed. Smith brings more than a decade of experience in retail management to the table. He is vice president of corporate relations for Chiro One’s Global One Wellness Alliance.

Smith met Vazquez-Rowland through the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and through the Sam’s Club Charitable Giving Program.

Smith said he wanted to become involved with A Safe Haven and became passionate about he cause, as he sees Vazquez-Rowland is, because “It is an excellent program. There is a family atmosphere between the staff and their relationship with the residents.”

Smith, who has presented workshops with residents on interviewing skills, as he has experience ranging from entry level, to mid- and executive level recruiting. He is an example of how Vazquez-Rowland utilizes resources.

Guest speakers and volunteers educate in areas from computer technology to personal appearance, dressing for success and interviewing skills. They work side-by-side residents serving food in the kitchen, catering events, and on special projects such as the playground they built this summer on the grounds.

There is a need for volunteers to spend three to four hours at a time telemarketing. Warm leads are provided, and people can bring their own calling list.

School groups, office staffs, neighborhood and family groups can get together a group to volunteer and A Safe Haven will assess the group’s goals as far as what they would like to accomplishment through volunteering, Vazquez-Rowland said.

She suggested that college kids who are off school during the holidays could come in for three or four hours at a time to volunteer, for example.

“We need volunteers to work side by side, training residents in customer service skills. And the volunteers can learn from them as well, and see how highly motivated the residents are,” she pointed out, stating that 183 of the residents are now employees at the shelter.

Those enjoy food service can join the line in the kitchen doling out food. They just served a Thanksgiving meal to the community, and the shelter serves three meals a day to its residents.

“They were the homeless, and now they are doing the footwork; they’re feeding others. They are the givers, and it changes their mindset,” Vazquez-Rowland said.

Volunteers are also needed to help plan events, and join committees. Vazquez-Rowland said a new associate board is in development for 2012.

“You could say it literally changes people’s lives,” said Vazquez-Rowland. “It’s powerful stuff.”

Those interested in volunteering can locate a volunteer form on


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