Sonya Dunkham moved to Donelson in 1995 with her two small children in tow. Having lived and worked as a single mother, she remembers well how it felt to live paycheck-to-paycheck.
“I know what it was like to wonder how I would provide for my family,” she said.
More than 20 years later, she sat down to read an article about the Little Free Pantry, a grassroots, crowd-sourced solution to food insecurity in Arkansas neighborhoods. Part of a larger initiative popping up across the country, the small, free pantries are similar to the “leave a book, take a book” idea of the Little Free Library, which is where Jessica McClard, founder of The Little Free Pantry, initially got the idea.
Rather than dog-eared paper-backs, however, the boxes are filled with food, clothing and other necessities, available to anyone in need.
The Little Free Pantry, which began in May 2016, facilitates neighbors helping neighbors. According to the project’s website, it is most often for those who are not easily able to meet everyday food and personal needs. “In middle class neighborhoods, the LFP might stock after-school snacks for neighborhood kids,” the website reads, “or that ‘cup of sugar’ you never have when you need it.”
Dunkham said that it was learning about this project that inspired her to create one of her own, one that would eventually become known as the Blessings Box.
“I wanted to find a way to help others outside of my everyday life, so I piggy-backed on the idea,” Dunkham said. “It’s actually the beginning of a bigger vision of mine to offer care to underserved areas throughout the nation by way of combined life care centers for children and seniors. I believe that children who have a foundation of love will be the best version of themselves as they move through life. And having a soft spot for senior citizens, I also believe it’s important to provide a loving environment as they transition through their twilight years.”
Once she found a platform for her idea, Dunkham began reaching out to local churches and businesses to help, the only one of which responded was Donelson Church of the Nazarene.
“We weren’t the instigators, but we knew immediately that we wanted to participate,” said David Hill, lead pastor at the church. “Our mission and vision is to help people, to feed people, to connect people to what they need. It goes along with our overall vision to connect people to the church. There’s this whole idea of helping people that is growing, and we’re hoping it will be contagious.”
Dunkham’s first box, which was created in November of last year, is located at Donelson Church of the Nazarene and was first filled with dried goods, canned food and toiletries.
Since then, Dunkham has worked with Jay’s Family Restaurant on Dickerson Pike to install another box. She also has two other boxes in the works—one at the Bell Road Church of the Nazarene and another at St. John’s Lutheran Church on McGavock Pike in Donelson.
“They are popping up all over the Middle Tennessee area, and it is so gratifying to know there are others who share in the belief of helping their community and those in need,” Dunkham said.
One of those helpers is Dina Sirois, director of the Islamic Center of Nashville.
Less than 10 miles away from Dunkham’s original box sits a new addition to Nashville’s beloved 12 South neighborhood, right outside the doors of the Islamic Center.
Sirois and those at the center created their version of a Little Free Pantry, also calling their miniature food bank a Blessing Box, after being inspired in the same way as Dunkham. Having lived as a single mother as well, Sirois too remembers what it was like to be in need of help.
“It was many years ago that I was a single mom struggling with two children, and I will never forget the people who helped me,” she said. “I would stand in line at 7 a.m. to wait for day-old bread just to get by for that week. I made myself a promise that if I could [help others in need someday], I would do what I could.”
Sirois said the blessing box started out as just an idea.
“I went online to find ways to build and put it together, and I found that the blessing box already exists,” she said. “People have put it them in their front yards, and there is actually a hashtag to follow.”
After finding the blessing box project, she posted on the center’s Facebook page to gauge interest, and within 24 hours, the post had reached half a million people.
“People were coming by dropping off donations, wondering where the blessing box was,” said Sirois. “The next day, we had donations in our lobby. We have a closet in our lobby, and I had my husband take the closet door off the hinges so we could convert it into a temporary blessing box,” she said.
Sirois said it is this sort of effort that places of worship — whether a mosque, temple or a Nazarene church — are all about.
“We are making so many new friends and new connections,” she said. “This is something for our community to get behind and work together on, to feel good about something we’re doing for our neighbors. The humanity is coming out in all of us. That is the purpose of every house of worship. We are commanded to at least one act of charity per day, and this is just a way to share with our neighbors. We are so fortunate that it’s going beyond the 12South neighborhood.”
To donate to the blessing boxes, contact Dunkham via Facebook at Blessing Box of Middle Tennessee or Sirois at the Islamic Center of Nashville.