ENGLEWOOD — It’s a cold morning when Dion Dawson pulls up to the corner of 59th Street and Racine Avenue.
Dawson almost steps over an orange bell pepper before crouching to grab it, dusting it off and holding it as he gestures to an outdoor refrigerator. The fridge is painted, covered in images of corn, milk cartons and potatoes. “Dion’s Dream” is painted in large letters that float in a dream bubble.
This is the Dream Fridge, a key component of Dion’s Chicago Dream, a nonprofit organization Dawson created to fight food insecurity in Chicago by providing 300 pounds of fresh food daily.
The pepper was once among the fresh produce and water in the Dream Fridge. Every morning, Dawson fills the fridge with free fresh food for Englewood neighbors. Within minutes, the fridge is bare. This time, a few apples and cold water bottles adorn the shelves.
Starting an organization that battles food insecurity wasn’t always Dawson’s dream, he said. Once homeless, the Navy veteran, father and husband has lived many lives, he said. But each of those journeys brought him to his true purpose: helping people who need quality, fresh food.
Dawson’s newest sector, Dion’s Deliveries, a food delivery service, brings 2,800 pounds of fresh produce to more than 150 households “as far north as Evanston and as far south as Pullman,” Dawson said. In the next year, he hopes to expand to serve even more families in even more communities.
“The work I do is less about me trying to be a pillar in my community and more about doing my part,” Dawson said. “I love my community, and every single thing that I’ve been through since I’ve been born has prepared me for this.”
‘I Always Told Myself I Would Come Back Home’
Born and raised in Englewood, Dawson was a “raging extrovert” who struck up lively conversations and cracked jokes with friends, he said. But his perspective on his upbringing changed when he attended Chicago State University, he said.
Dawson and his family were periodically homeless for 10 years during his childhood, he said. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his time away distracted from the reality that he didn’t always have a stable home, Dawson said. College brought that into sharper focus.
“School had always been a safe haven for me to not be reminded about what was going on at home, but with college, those lines are blurred,” Dawson said.
Homeless and not finding his way in college, Dawson went to the Navy recruiter’s office, he said.
“I said, ‘Hey, look, as long as I can talk and get a job where I can talk, I’ll be OK,’” Dawson said. “I ended up being the only mass communication specialist that came out of that office.”
Dawson traveled as a journalist for the Navy, working on its daily paper for six years, he said. He relayed stories from Virginia to Afghanistan, telling “a lot of cool stories” and learning the complexities of serving in the Navy, he said.
But Englewood was calling Dawson home, he said.
“I was always a square peg in a round hole. I just felt like it wasn’t it for me,” Dawson said. “I learned this amazing, invaluable skill set, but never once did I ever think that I was going to do 20 years. I always told myself I would come back home.”
The transition back to the South Side “went about as horrible as it could have been,” Dawson said. There still was no home to go to, he said, forcing him to live in his car. He was also struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
In 2018, his mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he said. He’d officially reached his “rock bottom,” he said.
It was time to “get his life together,” Dawson said.
By 2020, Dawson was working at Amazon to help family members pay bills during the pandemic. When Juneteenth rolled around, he wanted to show out for his community and loved ones. He launched a GoFundMe in hopes of raising enough money to feed 100 families. In a day, he raised $2,500.
Dawson provided more than 100 pounds of fresh food for his community, he said. Neighbors chose from fresh fruits and vegetables, pounds of steak and chicken and boxes of rice and cereals. It was “the happiest day of his life,” he said.
The following day, someone offered Dawson $30,000 to continue his endeavors, he said. There was only one hiccup: He couldn’t take it.
“I couldn’t take it because I wasn’t a 501c3, I didn’t have a fiscal sponsor, and I didn’t know what any of that meant,” Dawson said. “It crushed me because I felt like I defrauded my community. From there, I looked at my wife and I just said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go for it.’ And she said, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘I have no clue what it is, but I’m just gonna follow that feeling.’”
For the next several weeks, Dawson woke up early to study how to launch a nonprofit, he said. He started another GoFundMe to get him started; by mid-August, Dion’s Chicago Dream was born.
Dawson modeled his organization after community fridges he saw in Oakland, California, and New York, he said. Englewood being “a food desert” made it challenging for volunteers to find a nearby market to restock the fridge — so that meant Dawson had to do it himself.
The Dream Fridge was loaded with food and ready for the community in September 2020.
“I realized early on that we’re gonna have to come back every day and make sure that the quality is what we need it to be,” Dawson said. “Every single weekday, we’ve been able to stock Project Dream Fridge every morning to show consistency and build equity in the qualitative piece of our organization.”
For two years, the Dream Fridge has been stocked and available for Englewood neighbors every weekday.
“I’ve been to pantries, food lines, and giveaways where the quality is not becoming of the people who are in line,” Dawson said. “I stood in those lines outside for hours only to get a box of stuff that the quality was middling, and it was stuff that my family didn’t eat. I just told myself, if I’m ever going to do this, I’ll never ever have questionable quality or questionable approaches.”
Now with Dion’s Dream Deliveries, Dawson is creating equitable access to healthy, fresh foods across the city, he said.
Families receive 8- to-10-pound boxes of organic fruits and vegetables provided by J.A.B. Produce, a Chicago-based produce market. More than 300 households are on the waiting list for the free food service, and Dawson said he hopes to serve them all.
“This is about the resident and recipients understanding that they always have a right to dictate the quality they receive and what they receive,” Dawson said. “We have the ability to be in any food desert throughout Chicagoland within a 60-mile radius. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about being problem-focused so that we can create something that can exist where food insecurity exists, period.”
Dion’s Chicago Dream isn’t a “multi-million-dollar organization” yet, but Dawson said it has the potential to be. With the support of the Dream Team, everyone who has every donated, shared a video, or seen the power in fighting food insecurity, everything is possible, he said.
“When we get that call and someone says, ‘Hey, here’s a million dollars,’ we don’t have to wonder where it’s going,” Dawson said. “We know exactly where it’s going, what that equates to in food and labor and materials, and we’re going to continue changing food insecurity response and outreach as a whole.
“It makes it so much easier to wake up and appreciate the fact that we can make people’s lives better.”
Supporters can donate to Dion’s Chicago Dream online.
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