Skip to content

The Power of One

Like boy with starfish, three East Tennesseans make a difference

By Sherri Gardner Howell

The starfish story is probably familiar. The story was adapted from an essay by Loren Eiseley, a mid-20th-century author, into more of a parable: A man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

“Throwing starfish back into the ocean,” he replied. “The surf is up, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

The boy listened politely then bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. “I made a difference for that one,” he answered.

With so many overwhelming needs all around us, the will to try to make a difference is often hard to find. The starfish story is inspirational and encouraging. It speaks to the power of one: One person with a heart for helping.

Meet East Tennesseans William Cabaniss, Paula Osborn and family and Shelton H. Shelton. They will inspire you and are testaments that one person can make a difference.


Teen feeds community a teaspoon at a time

With all the struggles facing students when COVID-19 brought them home and introduced virtual learning, eighth-grader William Cabaniss was struggling with his heart. He knew a lot of students depend on school breakfasts, lunches and the backpack program to keep from going to bed hungry.

“I knew many kids did not have the luxury of having food at home. They relied on the schools and on food banks and pantries.” As the pandemic worsened, William said, he couldn’t get the thoughts off his heart. “I saw the effect of the pandemic on Tennessee residents and wanted to help. Then I heard food banks were struggling to meet the demand. No one should be worrying about the next meal. People should have food.”

As he finished eighth grade and wondered what his 2020-21 freshman year at Farragut High School would look like, he often went to the kitchen to make his “signature” vanilla brownies. “I’m not a chef or anything,” he said. “I just like to make brownies.”

And he really likes vanilla. “I have always loved how a good vanilla brings so much depth and flavor into baked goods. One day, as I was cooking, I just had a thought: Why don’t I make my own really good vanilla, sell it and donate the money to a food bank?”

Thus was planted the seed for Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow. His family – parents Mark and Jillina Cabaniss and siblings Andrew, 12, and Katherine, 10 – rallied to support his idea. And William got to work.

“The learning curve was tough,” he said. “I learned how to do a website, how to make vanilla [extract] and where to source the best vanilla beans. I had to learn about shipping, boxes, specific types and prices of bottles. Then there was the whole process of setting up a nonprofit. There were so many aspects, and I had great support at every step. I wanted to make sure that when we launched, it would be ready for a long, sustainable project.”

They launched Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow Inc. in late May 2020. William, who will be 15 in late May, is CEO and founder. His venture has been featured locally on news channels and in newspapers, but also hit the Hallmark Channel’s “Home & Family,” the “Huckabee” show, Lady Gaga’s Channel Kindness digital platform, Southern Living and more. As William began his first week as a high school student, a surge of orders poured in.

“The story was picked up by different news organizations, and we got 250 orders out of the blue. I was overwhelmed, but friends and family stepped in to help. I am so well-supported and so grateful to everyone who helps.”

Jillina and Mark invested in his vision from the beginning and provided starter funds to create his corporation. His dad, an accountant, also helped register with the state and IRS and apply for 501(c)3 status, which he has. His grandmother, Janice PlemmonsJackson, manages the Vanilla Feeds Tomorrow Facebook page.

The vanilla extract sells for $30 per 8-ounce bottle. William offers buyers the opportunity to donate as well as purchase the vanilla. “I sold my first bottle on the day we launched,” said William. “On Dec. 10, I made the first donation to Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee for $45,000. Another donation is coming soon.” William chose to donate 100 percent of the profits to Second Harvest. “It’s an incredible organization,” he said. “I like the reach and that it covers so many counties. The people there are so kind and so dedicated.”

William says everyone can make a difference, and he hopes more people will support food banks and pantries. “Do what you can. Volunteer. If you have a desire to help, do it.”


Coins add up to family mission

It all started with a jar full of coins that sat on the kitchen island at the Osborn home in Maryville. Drew is a pediatric dentist, and Paula owns Roost, a retail shop and interiordesign business. She is a wife, mom, designer and small-business owner.

“What was nowhere on my bucket list was to write a children’s book,” said Paula. But there was this jar full of coins. Paula’s son, Will Eriksson, was 10 years old at the time, and daughter Ava Eriksson was 8. The discussion began: What should we do with this jar? We’ve collected it, and now it is getting full.

“The first thoughts were to give it to our church,” said Paula. “Then Will said he felt like someone in our town could use it, and we should give it to them. He said he felt like other kids might have fewer blessings than he did.”

The family praised Will for his thoughtfulness and idea. “Now he’s on fire,” said Paula. “He runs upstairs and tells his sister. They decorated the jar, and they start filling it intentionally, with purpose. And it wasn’t just money. Ava put in a coupon she had for a free ice cream.”

Paula and Drew were touched by the thoughtfulness of their children. “Blessings come in so many forms,” said Paula. “Kids find kindness. It comes naturally to them.” Quickly the jar was full. Paula now had to help make their vision come true. She made some phone calls to friends and found a family that lived nearby. “They were just about a mile from our house. The children were thrilled, and we decided that the gift should be anonymous.”

“We decided to do it on a Friday night,” remembers Paula. “The night of the drop, our hearts were racing. They ran up to the door, put the gift down, knocked and ran back to
the car. We pulled out with our lights off, but we could see them answer the door and start looking around and find the jar.”

Will and Ava went home and began filling another jar. “They said, ‘We want to do this forever.’” Forever is still down the road, but the project has continued. Will is now 19 and Ava 17.

“We gave one just a few months ago, and everyone in the family was just as excited as when we did our first one,” said Paula. “It is something we will continue. We have been fortunate and were able to give to the same family for years. It’s important for the kids for the gift to be anonymous, to share something without expecting anything in return.”

In September 2018, Paula was sitting on her bed when the words Jar From Afar popped into her head. “It just came to me, a title for our mission. I wrote it down. In the shower, all these thoughts just kept coming to me. I got out of the shower and started writing it all down in rhyming verse. It was beyond me the way the words were coming.”

In just a day, the rough draft was written. “I called my friend Elizabeth and read it to her. She said, ‘This is inspired, because you aren’t this good a writer!’ And she was right. I never ever thought about writing a children’s book.”

The journey to publication began there. “There were bumps,” said Paula. “I would get stuck and would just pray. I think it was all because now, 2021, is the right time for the book. Annie Wilkinson, a fantastic illustrator, brought the words to life.”

What will be unveiled at the end of April is a Book Plus. The package is a book, a collection jar and a sticker pack. “Afar is any town in the country. The story is a read-to-me for those younger than about second grade, and a second-grader and older can read it. We launch on Amazon sometime the last of April. I’m still pinching myself. My hope is that the Jar From Afar will bless other families the way it has ours.”


Sharing lessons learned from children

“It’s not easy being green,” said the wiseKermit the Frog. Like Kermit’s message, lessons are often learned from the most amazing places. Shelton H. Shelton found a plethora of lessons in the development and growth of a friendship between her son, Chip, and his friend Jacob.

Those lessons have now made their way into a children’s book that is intended to teach and bless children and grown-ups alike. Chip and Jacob became friends when they met in kindergarten. Jacob was not yet confident in speaking his English, and Chip was initially very shy. Jacob found Chip’s name easy to say, and Chip gravitated to Jacob’s outgoing personality. The two quickly formed an unbreakable bond and friendship that continues today.

“When the boys were in second grade, Jacob’s mother passed away,” said Shelton. With the encouragement of a teacher, our family reached out to theirs in support during the difficult time.” That one step was just the beginning of a journey.

“As we began to see life from a different perspective, we grew emotionally and spiritually, and many other friends joined us as well,” said Shelton. “I knew I should use the story as a way to help others see themselves and those around them for who they were created to be--and, more importantly, to appreciate and accept differences. We all work together to help creation sing!”

Where to start was the question. Shelton was a broadcast and communications major at the University of Tennessee and worked for almost 20 years in sales. “I loved to write, and I started journaling 15 years ago. Over the past few years, I knew in my heart that I wanted to write a book. I didn’t think it would be a children’s book, but it turns out that was what was meant to be.”

The quarantine brought everything full circle. “I have a rare lung disease, so I had to be very careful,” said Shelton. “One morning I was sitting outside, doing my meditation and listening to the birds. That was when it hit me: Maybe the way to tell the story is through birds.”

“Songbirds” was born that morning. Shelton wrote it in rhyme and, because of the
subject matter, wrote it for children ages 3 to 10. “It has some deep meanings in it, and there are some good discussion questions in the back to encourage families to talk about acceptance and differences, on sharing God’s love and on how to be brave in your convictions.”

Another blessing was reconnecting with one of her own old friends who is an artist. “Paige Byrne and I were childhood friends,” said Shelton. “She was always such a great artist. We went our separate ways but found each other again and started keeping up. We have partnered on this book 50/50 and put it all together with Zoom meetings.”

“We worked with a local publisher, Jody Dyer of Crippled Beagle Publishing,” she continued, “and we are so happy with the book.” said Shelton. It is available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle from Amazon and also at Barnes & Noble, Target and Walmart online. Locally it can be purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited.

“We want this book to challenge people to value themselves and differences in others,” said Shelton. “By doing this, we can help make the world a better place, one step at a time. By walking alongside a family in their grief, we gained a whole new perspective on life, and we found we had much to learn from them. Now we are all family.”


Facebook: @VanillaFeedsTomorrow
Proceeds benefit Second Harvest Food Pantry of East Tennessee

Available on Amazon late April

Available Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and Wild Birds Unlimited

More Stories