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Across the country, wallets are emptying, cash registers are going into overdrive and wrapping paper is flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, as the nights continue to get longer and the winter cold gets more aggressive, there are those within our community for whom the “gift of giving” means so much more than a perfectly packaged present under the tree. Instead, some of our Nashville neighbors are relying on the generosity of private donors and local organizations to help provide them with basic needs such as food and shelter. Through their Zero Hunger | Zero Waste program, Kroger has given us an opportunity to team up and spotlight three of the inspiring local nonprofits who are addressing food issues and insecurities here in Nashville. And thanks to Kroger’s generosity, one of these nonprofits was the recipient of a $5,000 prize to further their efforts!

We are proud to feature this year’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste giveaway winning organization, Room in the Inn, along with runners up The Little Pantry That Could and The Bridge Ministry. All three organizations work tirelessly to meet the needs of Nashville’s homeless and hungry. Nothing short of inspiring, this week’s FACES of Nashville — each representing these organizations — are full of love, positivity and have servants’ hearts. Please join us in welcoming Maggie Sananikone (Room in the Inn), Stacy Downey (The Little Pantry That Could) and Candy Christmas (The Bridge Ministry).

Room in the Inn won $5000

And the winner of the Kroger Zero Hunger | Zero Waste giveaway is … Room in the Inn!

Maggie Sananikone, Community Development, Room in the Inn

Can you tell us about the overall mission of Room in the Inn?

Room in the Inn’s mission is to provide programs that emphasize human development and recovery through education, self-help and work, centered in community and long-time support for those who call the streets of Nashville home. Basically, our idea is that we want to leave everyone better than we found them. We want them to be safe from the elements — both day and night, in the winter and the summer — and also to help them move from crisis situations so they can help get connected to services to help them move forward.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge you’re facing?

Well, the nature of who we serve is probably one of the biggest challenges, because homelessness is so complicated. The response has to be diverse also. There’s just not enough affordable housing, not only in Nashville but everywhere across the country. And then when we do get folks to that point of stability, we don’t have a whole lot to offer them after, as far as affordable permanent housing. There aren’t resources available. We can work with folks on their mental health, their recovery, repairing their credit and their rental history, and things like that … but if there aren’t any affordable housing units to place them in, then there’s just not really anything you can do.

Zero Hunger | Zero Waste winner, Room in the Inn- Maggie Sananikone

Maggie Sananikone, who works in community development for Room in the Inn — this year’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste giveaway winner.

What are you most proud of within the organization and the work you’re doing?

I’m very proud. I’ve worked here for 14 years, but I’ve been volunteering with my family since I was 11.

We don’t ever want to simply complete a transaction with someone. Rather, we like to get to know our participants and get to know their stories. And since everyone’s story is so different, there’s no real cookie-cutter way to respond to their needs, so we work to build a trusted relationship, and hopefully, that will help them be more sustainable and move forward in their journey. Then, of course, I’m absolutely so proud of our meal program. With our partnership with Second Harvest, and now with Kroger, and our donors and supporters, we’re able to leverage what we have here and to provide really healthy meals. We don’t just feed their bodies; we feed their souls, too.

What is the most effective way for the Nashville community to pitch in and help?

There’s tangible and non-tangible. Learning about the barriers our folks face — learning about the affordable housing crisis in Nashville and across the country, because we aren’t unique in our growth. But the growth of Nashville — it does have its unintended consequences. So, people who were struggling before, this growth hasn’t really helped them out much. It has kind of created a bigger gap. So I would say becoming an informed citizen of how our rapid growth is impacting our neighbors experiencing homelessness and then, more specifically, getting involved. Volunteering here at Room in the Inn, but also at your congregation and in your community. There’s no one agency that’s going to be able to address all of the needs and all the issues, so we definitely work together with partner organizations. Whether you volunteer with us or at one of our nearly 200 partner congregations or at Second Harvest, who is a partner of ours as well, just get involved in any way you can. You know, some folks have money to be able to volunteer, but some people have time, and I feel like everybody has something they can do.

Maggie serving at Room in the Inn

Want to support this stellar organization? Maggie says, “It’s coming up on winter, so if folks are wanting to donate actual items, we have what we call our ‘Five to Survive’ winter items, which are new or gently used coats, hats, gloves, scarves and hand warmers.”

RELATED: The Kroger Initiative Even Oprah’s Getting Behind

That brings us to … What are you planning to do with the $5,000?

Well, after doing a little bit of math, we were able to figure out that it will provide 2,000 meals to our community. We have 110 beds for our residents who we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to every day, but we also serve lunch to our general population every day of the workweek. So the funds are going to help us provide healthy, balanced meals. At our meals — and I’m very proud of this — we provide table service for our guests, as you would at a restaurant. You know, it’s our privilege to be able to serve our community in this manner, letting them know that they’re just as important as the next person. We don’t see them any differently from staff or volunteers or whatnot. So this money will be able to help us continue our meal program and serving people at the table — meeting them where they’re at.

Can you tell us your best piece of advice?

I always go back to this quote: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated  to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

We can all do something, and we can all start by getting to know our neighbors and all of their diverse stories — do not be afraid of people who are different.

Aside from family, friends and faith, what are three things you cannot live without?

Honeybee lattes from Sam & Zoe’s, random dance parties in the car with my kiddo, and a clean house!

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Stacy Downey, Founder and Director, The Little Pantry That Could

Can you explain the overall mission of your nonprofit?

We are both a food pantry and a homeless outreach center. What we do with those two things is we provide food for anyone in need. And then, through our homeless outreach, we provide many different services for our friends who are living outside.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge you’re facing?

Oh, wow. Easily the increased number of clients for both services. We have doubled the amount of people who come for both food and outreach. It’s just growing like wildfire. There are so many people in need now, and it seems like every week we have more and more people come in. We have no formal funding, no big supporters, no business supporting us, and it’s incredibly hard to follow this model of not turning people away, but just trying to figure out how to provide more.

Stacy Downey, Founder and Director of The Little Pantry That Could

Stacy Downey, Founder and Director of The Little Pantry That Could.

What are you most proud of within the organization and the work you’re doing?

I’m not really proud, because we don’t take care of everybody, and there’s so much left to do. But we had a father come in one day — he shops with us — and he told me that being able to come to the food pantry let him not have to take a third job, and it let him spend more time with his family — he has two jobs now, and he was contemplating taking a third before he found us. It’s one moment when I was really glad that we were there.

What is the most effective way for the Nashville community to pitch in and help?

Our monthly donors are still valuable, because a person who donates monthly — even if it’s $5 — that helps us plan and budget, so we know how we’re going to take care of our expenses. Another great way is to come and volunteer. Saturdays, we always need volunteers, and they can find us on Hands On Nashville. So those are two super great ways to get involved.

We need more funding — of course, everybody says that, and it’s true. We need more space in our building. And maybe we just need things in place in our city that help people not be so desperate for basic needs. I have teachers, EMTs, and nurses who shop with me — if that doesn’t say it all … those things are stunning to me every time I see them, and I see them every single week. Why is it so hard? You think typically that it’s just somebody who took a wrong turn — that they did something wrong, they blew their money, they got in over their heads. But that’s not even close to reality. It’s sobering.

Stacy Downey working at The Little Pantry That Could

“We had 289 families last Saturday, and we run out of food every single week. My only answer to this problem is to turn people away, which is something I will never do, so every week, it’s this huge, looming How am I going to get enough food in this place? But it will always work out because it has to. Every food drive helps so much,” Stacy says.

Can you tell us your best piece of advice?

Just do it. Don’t wait until you have everything figured out; the world is ready for you to change it right now.

Aside from family, friends and faith, what are three things you cannot live without?

Easy — a good pair of hiking boots, a dog that snores and super strong coffee.

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Candy Christmas, Founder and CEO of The Bridge, Inc. — The Bridge Ministry

Can you tell me about the overall mission of The Bridge Ministry?

Our ministry has three arms — The Bridge Ministry, which is under the bridge for the homeless; The Bridge to Kids serves the 3,600 children and The Bridge to You, where we help other organizations, and we are kind of a food bank to other organizations.

Nashville has 11,000 homeless people, and 4,000 of those are children. In the last count, Davidson County had 3,222 homeless children enrolled in our public school system. So, on a weekly basis, we serve about 500 homeless people under a bridge, and we give away 400 tons of groceries in a year. That averages out to anywhere from 15,000-25,000 pounds a week of grocery items and produce that we distribute to the homeless and the working poor.

We also serve 3,600 children a week. We have a backpack program where we fill their backpacks with food to eat on the weekend. It has to be nutrition-specific — it can’t just be cookies and chips and empty calories. We are serving 45 schools and 3,600 children — that’s our Bridge to Kids Program.

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What do you feel is the biggest challenge your organization is facing?

I think the biggest challenge is getting enough food for the homeless and the hungry. It’s hard to believe that in the United States of America, there are people going hungry, but they are. So to be able to accommodate so many mouths [is the biggest challenge]. We are constantly expanding, because people reach out to us. Teachers who have hungry children, who have been feeding their children in their classrooms out of their own paychecks, and you and I both know that educators are way underpaid. So they are trying to meet the needs, so we get calls constantly — several a week — “Can you take on more classrooms? Can you take on more schools?”

God has graced us. The bible says, “ God giveth seed to sowers.” As long as we’re willing to sow the seed, then God continually brings it in. I think it’s just the strenuous task of continually getting in the food and getting it out.

Candy Christmas, Founder and CEO of The Bridge, Inc.

Candy Christmas, Founder and CEO of The Bridge, Inc.

What are you most proud of within the organization and the work you’re doing?

I think that God chose me — that God has given me the greatest honor that I feel like he could bestow, and that is to serve the less fortunate. He said, “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.” It’s a great honor — it’s a privilege to serve the less fortunate, because most of them are in a broken place. Most of them are at the lowest point of their lives, and they’re just trying to survive. So for us to be entrusted with them, that we would not be harsh, that we would not be unkind … that we would be affirming and empowering to these people. It’s a great honor, and it’s something that I don’t take lightly, because they’re all God’s children.

What is the most effective way for the Nashville community to pitch in and help?

First of all, you can go to our website, bridgeministry.org, and you can donate, or you can sign up to volunteer. But like right now, we’re going to serve about 3,000 underprivileged children with brand new toys. So, toy drives, food drives, canned good drives, monetary donations. We don’t take any government funding; it’s all private donations, so there are a lot of ways to get involved. Or just show up under the bridge on Tuesday night at 6 o’clock and get your hands dirty. Put your arms around people who are broken.

Candy working at The Bridge Ministry

Candy tells us, “We live in the state of Tennessee, and Tennessee is the volunteer state, and let me tell you, there a some wonderful Tennesseans that come on a regular basis under that bridge to see people helped. It’s a work of love.”

Can you tell us your best piece of advice?

Stay in the moment. It’s very easy, with cell phones, computers and social media, to let special moments slip by unnoticed. I try to be aware of others (especially my family) around me and completely focus on them, their feelings and what they are saying. Make the main thing the main thing. Family, friends, relationships are the main thing.

Family, friends and faith notwithstanding, what are three things you cannot live without?

1. My tattered old Bible. It is my old friend. 2. My audiobooks. I am constantly wanting to learn. With a busy schedule, I don’t always have time to curl up with a good book. I listen to audiobooks in the morning while getting dressed for work, and as I am driving. 3. Chocolate cake!

Congratulations to all three of our Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste giveaway finalists! Thank you for speaking to us about the incredible work you do within our community. And thank you to Leila Grossman for the beautiful photos.

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She has a passion for pulmonary health and patient care, and she’s on the forefront of cutting edge lung health technological advances. Meet our newest FACE of TriStar, Dr. Susan Garwood of TriStar Centennial Medical Center. Click HERE.

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