Darrell Dixon already knew what Cathy Wallace wanted before she walked into the food pantry.
“I got you some lamb in there,” he said.
“In here?” Wrapped in a raincoat and scarf against the blustery weather outside, she rummaged through a large freezer.
“No, in your cart,” he said, pointing at the shopping basket that already contained bread and other staples. It was missing her favorite thing today, though. “No olive oil,” Dixon said; “I’m sorry.”
Wallace, 77, smiled wryly. “Not even a little bottle?” But she was tickled that he knew her preferences. She comes to the Hunger Resource Center in Manassas, Va. around once a month, and the staff feel a little like family.
A lot like family, actually.
That is partly because half of them are members of a single family – the manager, Dixon, 50, and his three sons, Shay, 19, Simion, 19, and Devante, 24. His daughter Jasmine, 21, works across the parking lot as a resident assistant in the Manassas homeless shelter that, like the pantry, is part of SERVE, a Northern Virginia Family Service organization.
It was not what Dixon, a father of five from Dale City, had in mind when he began working there three years ago. In his previous jobs, going to work each day had been something of a slog.
But this was different. “I caught myself enjoying going to work,” he said. “Everyone was just so open and friendly.” And helping people feed their families felt good. “It just builds your self-worth up.”
After a few weeks on the job, a thought occurred to him. “My oldest son, he had some mishaps in his past and my big thing was it was the summer months coming and I didn’t want them sitting at home.” Why not hire them at the pantry?
First came his daughter, who became a cook at the shelter; then the pantry hired the twins, and then Devante. “My main motivation was to get them something to do,” he said
Simion cut in: “And you needed the help.”
Dixon nodded. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through the summer without them.”
On a busy Monday, the sons hauled boxes full of cheese, frozen food, and other items from the back of the 8,000 square foot pantry to the front, where recipients entered one by one to fill their carts.
“Okay, we’ve got a household of four and two children,” Dixon called out, reading from a slip with information from a client in the waiting room. “We need diapers, size 5.”
Simion nodded and went to fetch the diapers. Then he placed a giant brick of mozzarella into the cart.
A single mom who came in with two toddlers said her family was gluten free – Dixon found some gluten-free gummy candies for the two-year-old, whose eyes brightened as she reached into the packet.
Watching his father on the job has been an ongoing lesson for Devante, who works there full-time (Jasmine, a student at NOVA, and the twins, who are still in high school, work there part-time).
“They all know who we are, we’re Darrell Dixon’s kids,” he said. “You want to live up to all the expectations and sometimes you want to carry yourself the way he does. I’ve learned…to have patience, to read situations, not to just jump ahead.”
Like when someone comes in in a bad mood.
“When they walk through that door, you don’t know what they’ve been dealing with,” Dixon said. He tells his children not to sweat the small stuff. “You’re doing good things,” he tells them; “you’re doing great things.”
Dixon says having his children close by is a blessing. “I get to help mold them and see how they’re going to be. And I like that they’re around me.”
Jasmine, who is studying psychology, said she is now considering changing her major to social work, based on her experiences there.
The Dixon children said they have learned both the value of items like food, toiletries, electricity, and water, and also the value of helping.
“It makes you feel happy, it’s almost like they bounce their energy off of you,” Devante said.
Clients who know about the family connection find it uplifting. Recently, a mother of twins showed up and said her husband had just left her. “She came in distraught that day and said she’d thought of me and my boys,” Dixon said. “The first thing she thought about was to come here.”
The Dixon boys also remind Wallace a little of her own six sons, one of whom died recently during an operation. “They’re such little gentlemen,” she said. “They say ‘Yes, ma’am to me.”
Namy Murphy, 44, a single mother from Manassas, hadn’t known about the family connection before Monday. Seeing them working together, she said, “inspired me to also let my kids know that in their free time they should do something like this.”