Hometown Hero Turns Tragedy into Tradition
by Jamillia Kamara
On Monday nights at 18th and Vine, you will find Tanika Little and her team feeding the homeless like they were guests at an elite 5 star restaurant. The team assembles faithfully despite the volunteer nature of the program. They dig into their personal pockets to purchase fresh ingredients and prepare home cooked meals. In a world where quid pro quo is the standard, it is refreshing to see hard evidence of genuine goodwill. I’m a sucker for a good backstory, and Tanika has an exceptional one.
The South Philadelphia native was inspired to found a nonprofit organization to “enhance the emotional and social health of children with special needs, disabilities, illnesses and mental health issues through creative art” after the devastating loss of her premature baby. The certified Mental Health Counselor also provides support to people suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis, and substance abuse.
While she spent as much time as she could with her premature baby, Tanika noticed that some parents immediately signed over their rights upon the discovery of a physical or intellectual disability in their newborn. As a result, Little often circulated the room to engage all of the children. Her innate desire to provide a friendly face and activities for these young patients blossomed into her nonprofit, Ian-Yae’s In Touch, in memory of her late daughter Ian-Yae.
The organization visits hospitals and children centers to “help patients and families cope with medical treatment and hospitalization through play, education, and self-expression.” Tanika goes above and beyond to ensure the children she serves have a great time, even if that means adapting at a moment’s notice. During one of her tie-dye extravaganzas at a rec center, she recalls feeling overwhelmed by a larger group of kids than she had planned for. Instead of backing out, the team gathered their supplies, covered all surfaces with newspaper, and completed a successful day of tie-dye.
At Christmas time, Ian-Yae’s In Touch sponsored five families in the community and hand wrapped donated gifts for her Monday night homeless attendees. “People were so excited to get the gifts,” she remembers. “Instead of just handing out scarves and gloves, we gave them the experience of actually opening a wrapped gift. They appreciated that. It made them feel special.” Tanika does not just go the extra mile for the people she serves. She goes the extra 5k, easily.
Monday nights are no different. I’m talking rain. Sleet. Snow. Sub-zero temperatures. Tanika is in her usual spot despite the weather. She reasons, “I have a warm home to go to after I feed them, and it’s only for one hour. They have to be out here for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Who am I to complain?”
After a grueling 8-4 work day, Little’s team discusses what they each will prepare for their guests. They plan a menu complete with a main course, sides, and dessert. When asked why she does not solicit frozen food donations or collect the food ahead of time, Little expressed deep concern that the people she fed had warm, home cooked meals. “I wouldn’t want to eat anything that was old or really cold, so why would I give that to someone else? We make sure everything is warm and ready for them.”
I was surprised to learn that Little knows many of her guests by name. They know her as well, and not just for providing food. She listens to their stories. They tell her she “makes them feel like they are human because lots of times they feel invisible all day long.” She recalls a man saying, “Imagine saying hello to 300 people without anyone saying a word back. You are surrounded by people but still incredible lonely.”
If you ever get a chance to chat with Tanika, you will never look at feeding the homeless in the same way. She breathes new meaning into a phrase that is widely overused, but seldom completed wholeheartedly. Her compassion is real. She is proof that pure intentions and hearts of gold still exist, and if you ever want to see her in action, check her out on Monday nights at 6:30pm.
Ian-Yea’s In Touch is hosting a Chicken and Waffle Fundraiser to commemorate their one-year anniversary. RSVP via eventbrite.com - Chicken & Waffle Comedy Show.
Visit the Ian-Yae In Touch website at www.ian-yaesintouch.org to learn more about Tanika’s work, or connect with her on social media via Facebook and Instagram.