By Lauren Means | Photos Courtesy Norman Hanks
He’s known for his big heart, infectious personality and empowerment of people. He’s selfless and would give his shirt off his own back to someone in need. He’s Norman Hanks and some of you know him as Veronica Paige.
It’s no surprise Norman is regarded as an inspiring person. He graduated from MTSU with a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Education and went on to work toward a Master’s Degree in Drama Therapy, with a goal of using that education and experience in working with victims of domestic violence. He has helped raise two of his nephews and, in the past seven months, he’s had the privilege of gaining custody of his 15-year-old nephew, Daniel.
Currently, he’s the Chief Operating Officer for Nourish Food Bank, the largest direct service food bank in Middle Tennessee. He’d worked with Nourish from 2013-2015 before taking a hiatus to move to Georgia to be closer to family.
In 2018, he met with the CEO of Nourish to discuss a vision for Nourish’s new HUB facility and outreach initiatives. Norman was also provided the opportunity to rejoin the team to help lead these projects. He said, “I was happy to be part of the Nourish strategic plan again and it’s been an exciting two years of growth.”
Feeding the Community
Nourish Food Bank exists to feed families and fuel hope across Middle Tennessee and to nourish our families and communities through compassionate service, supportive programs, and collaborations that create a network of care.
For nearly 40 years, Nourish (formerly Smyrna-La Vergne Food Bank) has been providing food directly to children and families fighting hunger and its related health implications. They’ve also worked collaboratively with numerous nonprofits, schools and community and civic groups to help reach new, vulnerable communities through food donation partnerships. More than 500,000 meals worth of food have been given out directly to families and through collaborative initiatives in the past year alone.
Being a direct food bank means Nourish provides meals directly to individuals and families facing food insecurity and crisis. Their partner, Second Harvest, is a distributor that works to provide food to agencies like Nourish or Greenhouse Ministries, to support work in directly feeding families. Greenhouse has a food pantry as a component of their programming, however, they adhere to faith-based and other restrictions on clients receiving food and Nourish doesn’t.
Norman explained, “The direct food distribution to hungry individuals and families is our backbone and at the root of everything we do. However, we also recognize that there are many ways that the hungry seek help and not all of those may be walking through our doors.”
With this knowledge, Nourish works with programs like the Atlas Program of Rutherford County Schools, through which they distribute over 400 backpack kits monthly to homeless youth to provide weekend take-home food supplies; Journey Home, a homeless outreach program, with which they’ve both received and distributed food as needed; Endure Athletics, helping to immediately access food for children living in hotels; and many others from veterans outreach groups to domestic violence centers providing in-shelter meals to women and children. Norman said, “We believe that only by providing these kinds of collaborative approaches to community care can we truly move the needle on hunger.”
Service During a Pandemic
Norman says Nourish served over 330 families each week during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, distributing more than 100,000 meals to families in crisis. They also continued distributing food to and supporting other critical community work being done by the Boys & Girls Club, and The Journey Home.
Nourish is preparing for an influx at the same or greater levels than those first weeks as financial support systems dry up, people continue to be without work, and families are facing difficult school and feeding choices.
Given these times, Nourish can always use the help of volunteers. Potential volunteers can visit the sign-up website to find available shifts and select the times best suited to their availability and needs. They can also coordinate group volunteers.
Nourish also accepts all forms of monetary donations and can always use donations of non-perishable canned goods. They accept any type of non-expired food and work diligently to ensure its safe, healthy and timely storage and distribution to their clients and partners.
A Beacon for the LGBT+ Community
Norman’s selflessness wasn’t and isn’t reserved for Nourish though. About 23 years ago Middle Tennessee was given the gift of Veronica Paige and she enjoyed a vibrant career in Nashville.
Life happens, as it does sometimes, and around 15 years ago, Norman refocused his life to help take care of his nephews and mother. With that, Veronica was moved backstage. In 2018, Norman decided to make the move back to Murfreesboro and brought his old friend Veronica Paige back out of the closet.
Now, Veronica is “a beacon for the LGBTQ+ community in Rutherford County and surrounding communities to raise awareness, provide hope, and shine a light on others working to find their way,” according to Norman. Veronica also has a cooking show that she produces and is on her YouTube channel “Cooking and Conversations with a Queen,” which her production team uses to promote events, organizations, and other things happening in and around Middle Tennessee.
Norman said, “I want Veronica to be known for the generous works she does as well as always being approachable.”
Turning the Paige, A Queen is Born
When Norman was 18, he was taken by friends to Connection Nashville to see his first drag show. “I was blown away, as many have been, by Bianca Paige. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be her when I grow up!’ After all, who doesn’t love fancy clothes and shiny things hanging off of them? LOL!”
Not long after he turned 18, Norman said he was asked to leave his family’s home as they disagreed with his “feelings and lifestyle.” He didn’t know where to go. He got a job at Connection working as a server in the restaurant there where he made some new friends that took him in and helped him find his way.
“While working there I had the opportunity to participate in Turn About. Bianca was the queen who painted my face for that and gave me the name Veronica Paige. I was also helped by some other amazing performers then, such as Judy Jetson, Stephanie Wells, and Calpernia Adams!” recalled Norman. He continued, “After that first performance on that stage, I knew I was going to find a way to use my talents to help my community as these gifted performers helped me, and Veronica and I have been trying very hard ever since then to do just that.”
Reveling in the Sense of Community
Veronica has had many memorable experiences. She said one of the most memorable was during Boro Pride 2019. “I was asked to do the Books from Birth reading tent (“Drag Queen Story Hour”), which was such a wonderful moment in and of itself, watching those little faces looking up at me and smiling and enjoying Veronica’s performance. While at the event, I was wandering around meeting people and reveling in the sense of community, when a group of religious zealots showed up waving their hate signs and spouting ugliness at the people having a good time,” she recalled. “I noticed it getting heated over in one corner of the venue and walked over to see a large group of people standing and listening to the slander and hate. I decided that it may be better if the onlookers had something pretty to look at instead of hearing the hate and ridicule, so I stepped in front of the zealots and stood and smiled and waved. I believe that we all win when we quit giving hate a moment of our time and we only accept each other and share love!”
This year has looked a little different and Covid-19 has had a major impact on the LGBTQ+ community. The pandemic has shut down bars where this community has previously been able to come together. “It is isolating for some and they are having to deal with depression and financial hardships. However, this community is also very resilient and will come back and be stronger than before,” said Veronica.
Veronica is currently focusing on crafting dynamic virtual engagement opportunities to provide presence and entertainment that is safe and responsible. She said you may catch her doing a live spot on Facebook but the best way to stay in the loop, view old shows, get an updated calendar with upcoming live and virtual opportunities, and to connect or schedule performances is to follow her Facebook page.
As for Norman, he said he is grateful to be a part of such an open and caring community — “I hope that I am able to be an inspiration to those who aren’t as fortunate as I am to have such amazing and caring people around me.”