For Lisa Thomas-McMillan, it is the newness of each day that motivates her from the minute she opens her eyes.
Thomas-McMillan, founder of Drexell & Honeybee’s in Brewton, told Yellowhammer News in a recent interview that the excitement of discovering what each day holds propels her out of bed and to her restaurant as soon as she awakens before dawn.
“I don’t know what my day is going to bring,” she offered. “I don’t know what that day is going to bring to me. You don’t ever know who you are going to help and how you are going to help them.”
Helping people is something she has made her mission for a large part of her life. A donation-only restaurant, Drexell & Honeybees is a frequent deliverer of the unknowns in which Thomas-McMillan so often revels.
She recalls one day finding a note in the donation box with a message saying that Thomas-McMillan had provided meals for a family of four who had no means to do so themselves. Being unable to recall who might have fit that description in her restaurant the previous day was exactly the way she wanted it. According to her, the “beauty” of the unknown is that names and faces are less important than the simple act of service.
Stories like that shed light on why Thomas-McMillan took up the cause of hunger and has built a model recognized across the nation as an innovative charitable solution to feeding those in need.
“People suffer from hunger in silence,” she remarked.
So she decided to do something about it.
“People know a lot more about hunger now than 20 years ago,” Thomas-McMillan explained. “It was kind of something that people didn’t talk about. Getting around town and speaking to the elderly people in my hometown I realized a lot of them were choosing between medicine and food. So I started a non-profit food bank called Carlisa, Inc. By doing that I got a chance to go out in the rural areas delivering food, but I was also learning a lot about how people were living, some of the things they were kind of missing out on in life. Over the years, I said in my mind, wouldn’t it be nice to have a place where people could just go and eat and not have to worry about paying for anything.”
It was reading about a restaurant called “Soul Food,” and started by musician Jon Bon Jovi, that got her wheels turning.
“It fascinated me that he was doing this pay it forward thing,” she remembered.
Inspired by the story, she decided she wanted to open a similar restaurant.
After presenting the concept to her husband, Freddie, the couple set in motion plans which resulted in the opening of Drexell & Honeybees.
“We wanted it to be a place where everyone could fit in and feel comfortable and know they were in a good place with good food,” Thomas-McMillan said. “We wanted also to set it up where nobody would know who paid or if they paid or how much.”
And, so, they devised a private box for donations, a key feature of the restaurant’s function.
“One thing I learned over the years in delivering food is that people might not have money but they have pride,” she said. “I knew a lot of people would not come in if their pride would be questioned. So we set it up where they keep every inch of their pride, come in and enjoy a meal and walk out just like anybody else.”
Another part of the payoff for Thomas-McMillan is seeing what happens when people and food happen at the same time.
“I love to see people enjoy food,” she said. “Food is a great, warm thing that brings people together, makes them fellowship. When you see a group of people sitting around and enjoying food, they’re fellowshipping and enjoying each other. And that’s what the restaurant is all about, bringing different people in and saying, ‘I don’t even know you, maybe, but I’m sitting around this table sitting around this table having a good meal, enjoying the food, and I’m fellowshipping with a stranger.’ It is the best feeling in the world.”
It took quite a leap by Thomas-McMillan to arrive at this point, and along the way, it was her faith which played “the biggest role,” according to her.
Facing doubts from the outside that she and Freddie could make Drexell & Honeybees work, they were undeterred. As far as they were concerned, God gave them a mission, and they were going to fulfill it.
“The good feeling, the joy deep down in your stomach that you get from doing something like this,” she pointed out. “Money can’t buy the faith or the joy or the peace of mind. Those are priceless benefits that we get from this.”
People travel from all over asking if she thinks they would be able to replicate her mission. To which she replies, they can, and all it takes is faith and a sincere desire to serve others.
“Being in service to others is the best thing you can do,” said Thomas-McMillan. “After all, we were put on earth to help each other. Serving others is the highest compliment you can pay God for Him giving you your health and strength and keeping you sustained through everything. No matter what happens, God is going to take care of you.”
This does not mean her faith has not been put to the test during her years fighting hunger.
“I didn’t think people were taking [hunger] serious enough,” explained Thomas-McMillan.
So she prayed for guidance and felt a call to walk to Montgomery — from Brewton. Her goal was to hand-deliver a letter outlining her concerns for the hungry to then-Governor Bob Riley. After walking the approximately 115 miles, that is what she did.
Still feeling unsettled, Thomas-McMillan then felt called to walk all the way to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to her cause.
She laughs now looking back at hearing people say the walk was staged.
Thomas-McMillan remembers saying, “’Are you crazy? Do you know what it would have taken to fake a 53-day walk to Washington? It would not have been worth my time [to fake it].’”
Not only did the walk to Washington gain notice, but it also allowed her to explore the depth of her own conviction to help feed the hungry.
Before she had even left the state of Alabama, someone near Tuskegee asked her how much she was getting paid to complete the walk. She thought about it for a minute, and the answer became clear.
“’You know, they couldn’t pay me to walk to Washington,'” she recalled saying. “And that’s when I realized how great this was because you could not pay me to walk to Washington. But the fact that I’m trying to help people with hunger, I would do it for nothing. Just that one question made me realize, ‘Oh, Lord, Lisa, this is pretty awesome because you couldn’t pay me to do this.’”
Her mission statement is: “Feed the Need.” And this is a calling which she believes can be applied to anything and any situation.
Serving the food line one extremely cold day in January, Thomas-McMillan overheard a couple talking about how they did not have enough money to buy an electric heater. She took it upon herself to offer them the needed funds, with the request that they bring the receipt back to her.
They brought back the receipt, and some change, but it was what happened next which had the greatest impact on Thomas-McMillan.
“The man said to the woman, ‘Boy, those youngins gonna sure be glad to see this heater when they get home,’” she recalled. “That tore me up because I didn’t know anything about the children, and I could only imagine that they were so cold that night before, and I could only see them sitting around that little heater. That’s what I mean by ‘Feed the Need.’ People have to realize that I have learned over the last few years, and I’ve known this all my life, I think I have, the more money you give away, the less money has control over your life.”
While the mystery brought by each new day inspires Thomas-McMillan, it also never disappoints.
“Every day you can go home with this special moment from being here,” she said. “You leave with a special moment from things unfolding.”
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Lisa Thomas-McMillan a 2020 Woman of Impact.
Editor’s note: Yellowhammer Multimedia recently announced the third annual Women of Impact Awards. Honorees are being featured on Yellowhammer News each weekday through September 30. We will tell their stories one-by-one, utilizing written and video formats. Check back daily for more of Alabama’s best and brightest.
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia