Dade construction students build 'blessing boxes' to help needy

Patrick Filbin, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·3 min read

Apr. 25—David Howard never wanted to be a teacher.

"My wife has taught for 35 years," Howard said. "I never thought about teaching, had no desire to teach. Didn't want to do it, but God had a different plan for me."

Howard was born and raised in Meigs County, Tennessee.

After 12 years in the Tennessee Army National Guard, Howard opened up his own electrical company and later took a job with J&J Contractors.

One of his jobs was to oversee the complete renovation of Dade County High School.

"They sent me down here against my will," Howard said. "I didn't want to come to Dade County. While I was down here, the construction trades position came open. I applied for it, got it and now I know where I need to be. I absolutely love it."

Howard and his growing program of 180 students are giving back to the community in an inspiring way.

Howard's construction trades class recently helped build two "blessing boxes." The 10-foot-high structures are used as donation locations and places for people to drop off non-perishable food and health items for those in need.

Howard said he was approached by John Huffman, a Dade County resident who runs a Facebook group called "Dade for Free!" The page is used as an online bulletin board for things that can be picked up, notices for community events and other things.

The group, also credited with starting the Blessing Box program, has several around the county in the parking lots of churches and other places. Huffman approached Howard about his class building one for a local church in Wildwood.

"The first blessings box in Dade for free food and household item take-and-give was put up on the side of the library back in 2019," Huffman said. "Then Debbie Manwarren built hers on New Home Loop. These were especially helpful and needed during 2020 when COVID was keeping everyone quarantined and finding food was tough."

Around that same time, Dena Abell with Alliance for Dade asked Howard to build a second box to be placed on Lookout Mountain at the corner of Highway 136 and Sunset Drive.

Howard said the two blessing boxes reminded him how much his students love to productively work with their hands and how much they enjoy giving back to the community.

"When I mentioned to them that it was going to be for people that, you know, don't have enough money to buy food, they were all about it," Howard said. "We've got a bunch of new equipment, the community is totally involved and [we're] just a very successful program that is doing a lot of things in a small little town."

Before the boxes, Howard's class worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to demolish and rebuild a bridge near the football field on campus in an area known as the wetlands.

"My students were able to gain experience dismantling an old wooden bridge, and we actually built it back," he said. "The good thing about it is it saved our school system thousands of dollars because we didn't have to pay a contractor and the students absolutely loved it."

Howard said he and his class already have plans to build a third box and are looking forward to finding more ways to be involved in their community in a positive way.

Huffman said the boxes are "definitely a wonderful project that has the county's residents coming together to help each other."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.