ENGLEWOOD — It’s cold in the morning when Dion Dawson pulls up at the corner of 59th Street and Racine Avenue.
Dawson nearly steps over an orange pepper before crouching down to grab, dust and hold it as he gestures towards an outside refrigerator. The fridge is painted, covered with pictures of corn, milk cartons and potatoes. “Dion’s Dream” is painted in large letters that float in a dreamy bubble.
This is the Dream Fridge, a key part of Dion’s Chicago Dream, a non-profit organization created by Dawson to address food insecurity in Chicago by providing 300 pounds of fresh food daily.
Pepper was once part of the fresh produce and water in the Dream Fridge. Every morning, Dawson fills the fridge with free fresh food for the neighbors in Englewood. In a few minutes, the fridge is empty. This time, a few apples and cold water bottles adorn the shelves.
Starting an organization that addresses food insecurity wasn’t always Dawson’s dream, he said. Once homeless, the Navy veteran, father and husband lived many lives, he said. But each of these trips led him to his real goal: to help people who need fresh, quality food.
Dawson’s newest business, 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. Over the next year, it hopes to expand to serve even more families in even more communities.
“The work I do is less about trying to be a pillar in my community and more about doing my part,” Dawson said. “I love my community and everything I’ve been through since birth has prepared me for this.”
“I always said to myself that I would come back home”
Born and raised in Englewood, Dawson was a “wild extrovert” who struck up heated conversations and cracked jokes with friends, he said. But his perspective on his education 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 absence distracted him from the reality that he hadn’t always had a stable home, Dawson said. The college highlighted this.
“School was always a safe haven for me not to remember what was going on at home, but with college those lines are blurred,” Dawson said.
Homeless and unable to find his way through 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 fine,'” Dawson said. “I ended up being the only mass communication specialist to come out of that office.”
Dawson traveled as a reporter for the Navy, working for its daily for six years, he said. He told stories from Virginia to Afghanistan, telling “a lot of cool stories” and learning the intricacies of Navy service, 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 for me,” Dawson said. I never thought I was going to do 20 years. I always told myself that I would come home.
The transition to the South Side “was as horrible as it could have been,” Dawson said. There was still no home to go to, he said, forcing him to live in his car. He also struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
In 2018, his mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he said. He had officially hit his “bottom”, he said.
It was time to “get your life back together,” Dawson said.
In 2020, Dawson was working at Amazon helping family members pay their bills during the pandemic. When Juneteenth arrived, he wanted to show off for his community and loved ones. He started a GoFundMe in hopes of raising enough money to feed 100 families. In one day, he raised $2,500.
Dawson has provided more than 100 pounds of fresh food to his community, he said. Neighbors chose fresh fruits and vegetables, pounds of steak and chicken, and boxes of rice and cereal. It was “the happiest day of his life”, he said.
The next day, someone offered Dawson $30,000 to continue his efforts, he said. There was only one problem: he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I couldn’t take it because I wasn’t a 501c3, I didn’t have a fiscal sponsor, and I didn’t know what that meant,” Dawson said. “It crushed me because I felt like I cheated my community. From there, I looked at my wife and just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go.’ said, ‘What is this?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea what that is, but I’m just going to follow that sentiment.'”
Over the next few weeks, Dawson woke up early to study how to start a nonprofit, he said. He launched another GoFundMe to get it started; in mid-August, Dion’s Chicago Dream was born.
Dawson modeled his organization on the community refrigerators he saw in Oakland, California and New York, he said. Englewood being “a food desert” made it difficult for volunteers to find a nearby market to restock the fridge – which meant Dawson had to do it himself.
The Dream Fridge was stocked with food and ready for the community in September 2020.
“I realized early on that we had to come back every day and make sure the quality was what we needed,” Dawson said. “Each day of the week, we were able to stock Project Dream Fridge every morning to demonstrate consistency and build fairness in the quality element of our organization.”
For the past two years, the Dream Fridge has been stocked and available to Englewood neighbors every day of the week.
“I’ve been to food pantries, chain restaurants and gift shops where the quality isn’t right for people waiting in line,” Dawson said. “I stood in these queues outside for hours just to get a box of shoddy stuff, and it was stuff my family wouldn’t eat. I just said to myself, if I ever do this, I will never have questionable quality or questionable approaches.
Now, with Dion’s Dream Deliverys, Dawson is creating equitable access to healthy, fresh food across the city, he said.
Families receive 8-10 pound boxes of organic fruits and vegetables provided by JAB Produce, a Chicago-based produce market. More than 300 households are on the waiting list for the free catering service, and Dawson said he hopes to serve them all.
“It’s about the resident and the beneficiaries understanding that they always have the right to dictate what quality they receive and what they receive,” Dawson said. “We have the ability to be in any food desert across Chicagoland within a 60 mile radius. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about focusing on the issues so that we can create something that can exist where food insecurity exists, period.
Dion’s Chicago Dream isn’t yet a “multi-million dollar organization,” but Dawson said it has the potential to be. With the support of the Dream Team, everyone who has donated, shared a video or seen the power to fight food insecurity, anything 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 is going, what it equates to food, labor and materials, and we will continue to change the response to food insecurity and awareness as a whole.
“It’s so much easier to wake up and appreciate the fact that we can make people’s lives better.”
Supporters can donate online to Dion’s Chicago Dream.
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