In 2005, Joan Cheever of San Antonio, Texas, became inspired to help the homeless after she realized that her then-pre-teen children were complaining too much about what they “wanted and needed,” while there were less fortunate people in their own community who were in real need of help.
“I put a pot of chili or spaghetti on the stove, threw together a salad and got some water bottles, and grabbed my kids and said we were going to find people who have nothing and aren’t complaining — and we’re going to feed them,” Cheever tells PEOPLE.
That’s the moment, Cheever recalls, when her new mission in life began: Feeding the homeless in San Antonio.
Driving around in her car — and soon after in a truck she purchased — Cheever and her husband Dennis Quinn started The Chow Train, where they drive around to four locations in San Antonio every Tuesday to deliver hot, fresh and healthy meals to people in need.
“It started off as a family thing,” says Cheever, 60, a former journalist. “Then mothers of my friends’ kids started calling and saying, ‘Are you going to go out and serve people food? Can I send my kid over [to help]?’
“I got them to interact with the people on the street and realize they’re just like us. They’re not invisible people — they’re real people and they’re hungry.”
Since the nonprofit food truck began 12 years ago, Cheever estimates that they’ve served over 100,000 restaurant quality meals to those in need. Every week she receives donations from the farmers market and when a catering company has extra food, they give her a call. A local Trader Joe’s also gives her the food they clear from their shelves.
“I never know quite what the meal is going to be on Tuesday,” says Cheever, who went back to school to get a degree in culinary arts. “I feel like my basket is full of interesting ingredients and I have to make them work.”
Cheever and her husband (who is charge of everything except for the cooking, she says) have also helped out at 12 disaster sites outside of the San Antonio area. When deadly tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, and Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013, they were there. They’ve also been to towns ravaged by severe storms, including the Gulf Coast and Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
On their third trip to the devastated area, they returned not only with food, but also with 100 Christmas trees, 5,000 ornaments and hundreds of lights.
“We worked with the police department to identify people who lost everything — and their Christmas,” says Cheever.”There was so much going on in their life, so it was heartwarming to see them enjoy the holiday spirit.”
Cheever knows almost everyone she serves on a first-name basis and even hands out dog food to them as well for their pets. But the hot vegetable soup, she adds, always comes out first.
“We realized that the people we help also have best friends on the street,” she says. “They were serving our food to the dogs and I don’t blame them. I thought that we needed to be the food truck for the four-legged friends, too. So we have a donor that gives us really good dog food.”
Cheever hopes that her mission doesn’t just help those in need, but also shows future generations that they need to care for the less fortunate as well.
“Everyone who comes out on the Chow Train is a volunteer and they just feel wonderful afterwards,” she says. “There are always going to be hungry people, and I think that we as a community need to do our part to help people.”
She adds: “It makes you feel really good to give when you are in a place that you can give.”