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Speaker Series: Michelle Waugh Dahl, Owner of Michelle’s Little Free Pantry

May 25th, 2022

April 21, 2021

Author: Heather Lowey

Vulnerability. Even speaking the word can have a negative connotation to a lot of people. A sign of weakness. Admission to a “wrong” when we’re supposed to strive for perfect. Michelle debunked this for us. Taking the Linking Indy Women group through her story of overcoming hardship, releasing shame, and standing up for what she knows is right in her heart.


A Korean adoptee, Michelle arrived at the O’Hare airport to meet her new family at 6 months of age. She became a naturalized citizen at the age of 4 and has been living in Franklin, IN for a majority of her life.

Adopted by white parents eventually with two younger white siblings, Michelle describes her childhood as a good one. Even with her Korean heritage, she explained being somewhat naïve to the racism which exists because she was seen as “white” in her small community. However, she was not fully shielded. She dealt with racist comments and unconscious bias even from those close to her family periodically, but in her youth didn’t fully understand the magnitude of this inappropriate behavior.

Comments such as making the Purdue cheerleading squad in college to help meet the minority quota and being told she fit in because she was raised by a white family were just a few of the messages she endured in her adolescence.

Michelle has been a single mom most of her adulthood with 5 kids ranging in age from 8 to 25. Due to addiction, she was forced to kick out the father of her two youngest boys in an effort to protect them from this devastating disease.

She went on to share her financial struggles in the past and shared with pride how she has overcome this adversity. With a great deal of bravery, Michelle showed us how vulnerability in sharing the struggle, not just the highlight reel, makes a person not only more human but explains their world lens in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to understand.


She describes herself as more fly by the seat of her pants versus planner. Likewise, this is how Michelle’s Little Free Pantry came to be in February of 2017. Michelle saw a need in the Franklin community for providing food resources to the hungry. She put a wooden cabinet outside her house and called it her Cabinet of Hope.

This seemingly knee-jerk reaction came as a result of Michelle feeling pretty helpless about the world in 2016. Between the election and other world circumstances, she was losing her faith in humanity and decided to do something about it.

The mission of Michelle’s Little Free Pantry is to provide 24-hour access to food. “Take what you need. Give if you can.” Is the motto.

The ironic thing is, what started as a way to provide food resources for those in need, has turned into something much more. The something Michelle refers to as #pantrymagic.


Pantry Magic is what happens when over 4,500 social media followers understand there are larger needs in the community than just food. A request is put out to the masses for furniture, household supplies, even a water heater and someone in the community steps up to help.

This is Pantry Magic.

In that same vein, Michelle realized there was a need for fresh produce for this growing community. Unfamiliar with gardening, she partnered with a local Girl Scout troop who built four raised garden beds in Michelle’s front yard and assisted her in getting a fresh produce garden planted.

What began as a wooden cabinet on Michelle’s front porch with a no judgement, no questions asked policy, has turned into a community effort, and recently assisted in getting about 300,000 pounds of food out to food insecure people in Johnson County. The concept of the cabinet has also spread into locations such as Greenwood and the Franklin library, to name a few.


Michelle also began to become keenly aware of the racism present in her community. From the Black Lives Matter movement to Asian Hate Crimes on the rise after COVID, she has taken an active role in her community to create awareness.

This has not been without suffering. She has received death threats, terribly insensitive comments on social media, as well as a historical supporter of the pantry pulling their resources over differences of opinion. All because she shared her experiences and asked people to stop and consider what may not seem obvious to them.

Michelle has become co-founder of the Franklin Equity & Justice Coalition, Inc. which became a non-profit last month. As a minority in the community, she realized over time that minorities are asking gatekeepers for things that don’t belong to them in the first place. This realization has led her to change her approach.

“Do not ask for permission when you know in your heart what is right.”


Michelle showed us what compassion for fellow mankind and putting yourself in a vulnerable place can do. Make real change in our community.

She suggested realizing when people are asking for help, they are being vulnerable. The food pantry, for instance, is more than food. We need to value the humanity in people and understand it takes great bravery in vulnerability to ask for help.

From her activist work, she received a note from a white friend recently stating, “Thank you for using your voice. I’ve learned so much about my own white privilege.”

The lesson in this, people CAN learn and then can do better. It takes someone being vulnerable with their story for learning and growth to be possible.

Curious about how to support Michelle and her missions? Here are a few ways she suggested doing so:

  • Like and share her Facebook page- Michelle’s Little Free Pantry Inc.
  • Spread awareness.
  • Get in there WITH people. Build relationships to seek understanding.

Thank you, Michelle, for your vulnerability and taking on the cause to create awareness in your community.

Want to connect with Michelle? Find her @michelleslittlefreepantry.