Meet Dion.

| 6 min read | 42 min listen Screen-Shot-2021-01-22-at-12.42.25-PM

After a successful career in the Navy, Dion returned to his beloved neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to...

After a successful career in the Navy, Dion returned to his beloved neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to a civilian life he didn’t recognize. His return home tested his health and his closest relationships, but in time he found purpose in serving his community. Dion began nourishing his neighbors by offering them fresh food for free. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dion realized his help was needed more than ever before. Since launching the project in September 2020, Dion has fed over 1,300 people, and his growing mission continues to spread love to neighbors in need.

Before dedicating his life to his Chicago community, Dion spent five years in the Navy as a mass communications specialist in the media and public affairs department. His work ignited a passion for writing, and his training gave him the tools and techniques for getting the word out about important events. Supervisors recognized his talent: When Dion left the Navy in 2015, he was one of its highest-rated journalists.

However, home was never far from Dion’s mind, even when he was deployed on a ship in the middle of the Red Sea, 7,000 miles from Chicago. He would often think about what was happening at home in Englewood, a neighborhood of 24,000 on the city’s South Side that has seen more than its fair share of struggles.

“Englewood is extremely dear to my heart,” Dion says. “It has helped me in every stage of my life. And it’s allowed me to adjust faster than the average person when it comes to adversity or problems.”

Despite his love for Englewood, Dion’s transition back into civilian life was difficult. He was suffering from PTSD, became separated from his wife after facing some conflict, and at one point, he even had to sell his beloved Corvette just to survive. On top of his personal battles, Dion learned in 2018 that his mother had kidney cancer. He knew he had hit rock bottom.

Dion retreated into himself, sitting alone for a few days to think—he knew something needed to change. It was at that moment he resolved to putting his life back together and continuing to lead a life of service. He mended his relationship with his wife, got himself back into a steady financial situation, and miraculously, Dion’s mother beat her kidney cancer in 2019—they both had a new lease on life. With a renewed sense of purpose, Dion re-committed himself to serving others and turned his focus to his local community.

Growing up in Englewood, Dion knew that many of his friends, family, and neighbors struggled financially, even before the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The median household income in Englewood is around $21,000, and more than a quarter of residents are unemployed, according to government data. High unemployment and low incomes for those who do work leave many residents food insecure. Englewood is also considered a food desert, meaning there are few places in the neighborhood where residents can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

Amid these troubling statistics, outsiders might not see the community’s strengths—or worse, they might blame residents for their neighborhood’s socioeconomic issues. But Dion saw abundant capacity and potential in Englewood, and felt inspired to come up with a project to address these problems and make a direct impact for the neighborhood he loves so much—but what would that look like?

He eventually found his answer in a refrigerator.

Inspired by community fridges he saw on Instagram in California and New York in August 2020, Dion decided he wanted to start a community fridge in his own neighborhood. Less than one month later, Project Dream Fridge was up and running and has been helping nourish Englewood’s residents ever since.

Situated outside of a local corner store, the community fridge is open every single day. Without fail, Dion and his “dream team” of volunteers stock the fridge with fresh produce, bottled water, and other donated food items in anticipation for the following day. What started out as a nice surprise for Englewood’s residents has turned into a daily food resource they rely on.

“Our motto is ‘feed the people, love the people,’” Dion says.

Dion used his communications talents to promote the project via short videos of fridge patrons that he shared on social media, capturing their genuine emotions.

“People can pick up on nonverbal cues from the videos, from looking into the eyes of this man, or woman, or kid,” says Dion. “And they can see how we set ourselves apart by keeping the people first, because that’s our motto.”

The videos have certainly made an impact: Since its September kickoff, Project Dream Fridge has provided over 4,300 pounds—approximately 2,700 servings—of fresh food and water.

The success of Project Dream Fridge prompted Dion to register an official nonprofit he called Dion’s Chicago Dream late last year, and now he’s raising funds through his GoFundMe to expand the community fridge into something much larger. Ever a big thinker, Dion’s vision is to own a multipurpose building that will be a hub for Englewood residents. The lobby would become a full community pantry with free produce and dairy items lining the walls, and the building would also give them ample warehouse space for food donations and distribution.

Dion also envisions a multimedia photo and video studio, where young people can learn how to use top-of-the-line equipment to document the world around them, just as he did on the Navy communications team. The center would also include conference rooms, computer workstations, and an incubator for local businesses who can’t afford to rent a permanent office space. He calls it the Dream Center of Englewood.

Dion’s dream is big, but he knows that big dreams have the power to create large-scale change, and just as importantly, continue to spread love.

“It’s up to us, the change makers, to fully believe in ourselves and to be that pillar of community, you know what I mean? That’s what the Dream Center of Englewood is. I started this GoFundMe because we need to have ownership of our dream.”