PENDLETON, Ind. — Behind the barbed wire and the armed guards and the locked gates, a handful of men wearing tan jumpsuits are bent over old newspaper boxes, paintbrushes in hand.

Incarcerated at the Pendleton Correctional Facility for offenses ranging from burglary to murder, the men are unlikely partners in a hunger-relief program started last month by Hanover College student Sierra Nuckols. The 20-year-old launched her Community Food Box Project after returning from a trip to South Africa with the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation and Global Justice.

Nuckols reached back to her childhood for inspiration when coming up with her free food idea. Born to a teenage mom, she remembered days when food was scarce, but she also remembered how friends, family and neighbors shared what they had.

That’s the idea behind the food boxes: to offer temporary, immediate relief “until the city and other stakeholders invest in the urgent needs of people living with food insecurity,” she says on her Facebook page.

To date, three boxes filled with free nonperishables have been placed at IPS School 56, 2353 Columbia Ave.; Rock of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, 10302 E. 38th St.; and Martin Luther King Community Center, 40 W. 40th St. People are invited to take what they need and fill the boxes when they can. Other organizations have told Nuckols they want to take charge of a box in their neighborhood, so she is struggling to keep up with demand.

Jeff King, community involvement director at the prison, got wind of Nuckols’ initiative and wanted to help.

“I’m just touched that a college kid wanted to do this,” he said. “I respect the heck out of Sierra.”

So do the men who are working behind the prison walls. Many grew up in the neighborhoods where the Community Food Box Project is being introduced and still have friends and family there. They know the toll that hunger can take on a child, so they are working several hours a day to transform donated newspaper boxes into mini food pantries.

“The guys take so much pride in doing this,” said William Dion Baxter. “When we can do something for children, a lot of guys will step up.”

He’s standing in an old machine shop on the prison grounds that today serves as American Legion Post 608. The walls are covered in elaborate, patriotic murals created by talented artists who also are prisoners here. Baxter, a Navy veteran, is the post commander. He’s serving time for the murder of his best friend. He didn’t do the killing, he said, but he was there and didn’t call 911.

“A lot of people were hurt, and I don’t want to minimize that,” he said.

So, any good that he and his fellow veterans in Pendleton can do helps chip away at the shame and regret many feel. The 16 veterans and 12 sons of veterans who are members of Post 608 raise thousands of dollars every year through prison fundraisers. The money is donated to charities such as Gleaners Food Bank, Special Olympics, Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Mozel Sanders Foundation.

“We appreciate the opportunity to do something for the community,” said Baxter, who grew up on the east side and attended John Marshall High School. “It’s a way of redeeming ourselves.”

King said one offender put it this way: “We took from the community; this is a chance to give back.”

That’s what Lawrence Carter is doing. He is copying an image of a “Star Wars” character onto a newspaper box. “We’re going to turn this little box into R2-D2 and fill it with food. This gives us a chance to show the community we can do something constructive and positive.”

Nuckols is thrilled with the interest her project has generated around Indianapolis but said critics have been quick to slam the idea, suggesting the boxes could spawn violence if people fight over the food.

“They say food deserts are caused by people stealing from stores, and that we shouldn’t provide food for people who steal,” Nuckols said. “It’s sad to see that sort of dehumanization going on. They are looking down on people who are needy. They don’t realize it’s actually a systemic issue.”

Nuckols points to a 2014 Walk Score study that ranked Indianapolis as the worst food desert in the nation, based on the percentage of people (5 percent) who could walk to a grocery store within five minutes of their home.

“Why have we come to this place?” she asked. “Why are one in five people going to bed hungry? Why do people have to go to a silly little box to get food?”

These are weighty questions for a 20-year-old anthropology major. But she has always had a strong sense of social justice, said her mother, IPS board member Gayle Cosby.

“Her childhood was atypical. I had her when I was 15,” Cosby said. “She came to my high school graduation. She saw me graduate college. She saw me grow up in a way that’s not typical. But her coming along made me strive to do better.”

In high school, Cosby said her daughter began to think critically about the world and how she could contribute to a “better society, a more just society.”

“I struggled as young single mom, but organizations were there to provide support,” Cosby said. “She recognizes that and is ready to give back.”

Tim Nation, executive director of Peace Learning Center, is serving as Nuckols’ mentor on her Community Food Box Project. He accompanied her and eight other Youth Fellows as part of the Desmond Tutu Center’s trip to South Africa in July.

“I’ve been impressed by her speed since we’ve returned from South Africa in getting this project going,” he said. “I’m really inspired by the younger generation. I see an eagerness to learn; I see kids with a lot of integrity and compassion.”

Nuckols said this is only the beginning. “When you actually start to do this kind of work, you see how much more needs to be done.”

Source: The Indianapolis Star,

Information from: The Indianapolis Star,

This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.