PILSEN — Artha Jackson Sr. never needed an alarm clock to wake up before 3 a.m. and serve vulnerable neighbors with Meals on Wheels Chicago. He said he’s a natural early riser thanks to his youth in the Mississippi countryside.
For 40 years, Jackson delivered dozens of meals each day to South Side residents in need, a one-man band taking his truck from Halsted Street to Harlem Avenue, from Roosevelt Road to 77th Street. He delivered his last meal on Christmas Eve and is handing the keys over to his son.
Bringing people food was a higher calling for the elder Jackson.
“A lot of people depend on the food. And not just so much the food — they depend on seeing the driver, a friendly face coming in, speaking and asking how they’re doing,” Jackson said.
‘He’s The Son To All Of His Neighbors’
On one of Jackson’s final routes before the holidays, his colleagues gathered at the shipment bay of Open Kitchens in Pilsen before sunrise to package hundreds of meals headed for every corner of the city.
Jackson’s massive delivery zone meant bringing meals to around 115 homes.
One of his first stops was in Brighton Park for an older couple whose daughter takes care of them. When Jackson told them he was retiring, the daughter got emotional and said “it was just a blessing” to be served by him.
Ricardo and Teresa Perez, of Gage Park, have received meals for more than a year. Teresa Perez is bedridden, and the couple’s children no longer live with them.
“What a great man … because he helps all of us,” Perez said in Spanish. “The food is good, and I’m able to eat good.”
Over 40 years, Jackson has bonded with the families he serves, and they came to expect to see him at their door each day. On the rare occasions he did not drive his route, clients would ask where he was.
“He’s the son to all of his neighbors,” said Jackson’s niece, Sherry Chambers.
Even those who have little to spare give to Jackson to thank him for his service. One woman gave him a packet of lemon cookies with a bow on top for Christmas.
Jackson said he recognizes how much people count on him.
“You don’t have a lot of time, but you try to be friendly with them and befriend a lot of them,” Jackson said. “A lot of them, they sit there 24 hours, waiting, just to see you.”
Jackson would work holidays and serve others even on his days off. On weekends, he fixes breakfast for his blind, octogenarian neighbor — delivered with a friendly conversation, of course.
The work sometimes meant giving up time with his own family, but Meals on Wheels is a family affair. Jackson’s niece, son and nephew all work for the organization full-time, but on different routes.
“My uncle … has missed so many things and sacrificed so much to do this job,” Chambers said. “It’s such a blessing for him to be able to come down here [to the distribution center] and see his son, see his cousin, see his nephew. Each and every one of these employees is our family. If we have a barbecue, come on!”
Even in retirement, Jackson plans to keep busy by doing odd jobs around the house. He plans on visiting his meal clients in the summer.
“They tell me, ‘Well, when you get a chance, come by, stop by and visit,'” Jackson said.
Artha Jackson Jr. is stepping up to bat for the retiree and has big shoes to fill. As a kid, the younger Jackson would help his dad along his route.
“It means a lot to me,” Jackson Jr. said. “His clients he goes to, they really have a bond with him. It just feels good to help out … and make people smile. Hopefully I can live up to him; man, it’s gonna be a big thing for me. That’s my goal, is to live up to him and get all the compliments and the love he gets.”
The elder Jackson said it makes him proud to see his son continue the family’s legacy of service.
“Well, I just hope he can be satisfied and do a good job,” Jackson Sr. said with a dry smile. “I’ve tried for over 40 years to do my best, so hopefully he can do better.”
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