Shelves of food, bottled water and personal care products fill the old choir room at St. John’s Episcopal Church on North Topeka in downtown Wichita.
It's the new distribution center for the growing Wichita-based food pantry program Paxton’s Blessing Box.
Program founder Maggie Ballard was storing goods in her basement — and throughout her house — and was running out of room. She says the central location will make distributing items to the dozens of neighborhood boxes a lot easier.
“It will be more convenient for the box host and for us to be a little bit more organized and have it out of our house," Ballard says. "We can have a better schedule of picking up and dropping off donations."
Ballard and her eight-year-old son, Paxton — the namesake of Paxton's Blessing Box — started the neighborhood food pantry program in 2016. The pantries offer free non-perishable food items and hygiene products to anyone who needs them at any time of the day.
There are 50 red wooden blessing boxes standing in front of homes, churches and businesses in the Wichita area and across Kansas. One is in North Carolina. Box hosts restock the shelves as needed, often daily.
Ballard says about $500 worth of food is taken from the box outside her home on West 13th Street each week.
“We definitely have seen an increase in traffic with kids over the summer, so we try to make sure we keep kid-friendly snacks and water and juice and stuff like that for them as they walk by,” Ballard says.
As the program grows, so do donations. People often drop off donations at the box sites. Food drives and special events throughout the year bring in food and cash donations while raising awareness to support the Paxton’s Blessing Box program.
Ballard says they collected 5,000 pounds of food items and 2,000 pounds of bottled water at a drive last month.
“The need is far bigger than we are, but we are going to continue to do what we can while we can,” she says.
The inspiration for the blessing boxes came from social media. A woman in northwest Arkansas posted a picture on Facebook of what she calls the “Little Free Pantry” in June 2016. Ballard saw it and had a friend build a similar wood pantry for her.
Over the years, as word spread about the Ballards’ blessing box, she started receiving requests from people who wanted help establishing a box of their own. Ballard decided to expand their effort to feed the hungry by building boxes for others. The red boxes include a logo and the motto, “Take a blessing when you need one. Leave a blessing when you can.”
“This was just kind of an idea we had and we did it on the whim, and it just took off," Ballard says. "We just had no idea of the need [in the community] and the wonderful support."
Ballard and a team from Key Construction had a “build day” at the end of May to complete new blessing boxes. She says 12 are ready, and will soon be installed throughout Kansas.
Ballard spent the past year looking for a suitable location for the distribution center. Now, with the program settling into the space at St. John’s, Ballard says she’s ready to turn her attention again to growing the program.
“I think now we are able to spread our wings and get going again," she says. "We have big plans to ship boxes out of state."