I used to believe that sitting still and taking time for myself meant that I was lazy and selfish. As I’ve grown older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to understand that the opposite is true. Taking time to meditate, exercise or read actually inspires and energizes us to take action. And no one knows that better than the Venerable Pannavati, a bubbly, smiling, former Christian pastor turned Buddhist monk in Hendersonville.
Pannavati is the founder of the My Gluten Free Bread Company, located in Hendersonville’s Historic Seventh Avenue District. In 2009, moved to action by her monastic spirituality, and in an effort to support the community, Pannavati opened My Place, an organization for local, homeless and at-risk youth and young adults. Pannavati says that starting the organization was her response and “contribution to a spiritual tradition that has transformed [her] life.” It was a natural call to action born out of her contemplative practices.
A place to live and learn
My Place, located in Hendersonville, was established as an emergency shelter, school and life-skills development program. When it faced a funding shortage in 2012, Pannavati started My Gluten Free Bread Company as a means of sustaining the organization and providing on-the-job training for residents. The idea to make the bakery gluten-free came from a desire to highlight healthy living and provide products for those with a gluten intolerance while creating a business unique to the community.
Today, My Place no longer provides residential services. The focus has shifted to offering social and practical job training in the bakery. In just one year, My Gluten Free Bread Company has signed contracts with 10 local grocery stores, including Ingles and EarthFare, to sell their gluten-free breads, cookies and muffins. The company was recently offered an opportunity to add 50 more area stores to its distribution, and has launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of acquiring the new equipment needed to help keep up with demand.
When I recently walked through the door of the bakery, I was greeted by a heavenly smell, followed by the smiles of Office Manager Jay Wilson and the company’s information-technology man, James Bland, a graduate of the program who’s now studying at Blue Ridge Community College and working part-time at the bakery.
Last year, seven other young adults graduated with Bland. They completed 500 hours of study and practical work in the bakery as part of a pre-apprenticeship in gluten-free baking. The program combines classroom work and practical training to prepare students to find work or further their culinary studies. Two more students are on schedule to graduate in a few months, and Pannavati plans to begin a new class in January.
Making a difference
Anthony Peterkin has been directly impacted by My Place, where he was the first resident in 2009. He describes his first night there as “the first peaceful night [he] had in years.” He graduated from the baking program last year, attended A-B Tech’s culinary program, and now divides his time by working at an Ingles Bakery and being on call for My Gluten Free Bread Company.
“It’s still not always easy,” Peterkin says, “but I’ve found a strength inside that makes me know I can make it.”
Here, everyone is accepted just as they are; everyone has a purpose; everyone receives a second chance — a chance to transform their life. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone receives an opportunity to begin to give back.
Giving thanks, giving back
Just before I left, I was given a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. I passed out a few hugs, said my goodbyes and climbed into my car. But before I took a bite of my cookie, I gave thanks for the opportunity to meet these inspiring young men and for Pannavati, a contemplative woman with a vision and a mission: a natural rising of action to “be a present help in time of need.” I smiled, took a bite and reflected for a moment: In this season of giving and thanks, perhaps, if I take the time to slow down, I, too, will receive a call to action of my own.
Learn more about My Gluten Free Bakery at mygfbread.com. To find out where to find their baked goods, visit the website and click on “Retail.”