One family in Wichita is taking the idea of a “community pantry” to a very personal level. They’ve set up what’s called a “Blessing Box” of goods in their front yard and are inviting people to take what they need.
When you walk into Maggie Ballard’s home at 911 W. 13th Street, it’s hard not to miss the bags of food--all of which was donated--that cover her dining room table and sit in piles along the walls around the room.
"The outpouring of our neighborhood and community has been awesome," Ballard says.
Ballard sorts through the food and, grabbing as many items as she can hold, heads outside to deposit all the food inside a red box that stands at the front of her yard.
The 2-by-2-foot box is made out of wood and is mounted on a post about 3 feet off the ground. There’s a door on the front, but no lock. There’s also a written note that reads: "Take a blessing when you need one. Leave blessing when you can.”
This is Ballard’s “Blessing Box.”
"I've just always had a passion to help people," Ballard says. "We get a lot of foot traffic down here on 13th, and I just thought it would be a fun little experiment to see if people use it or if they didn’t."
The Blessing Box has only been up for one month, and there’s no question that people are using it. Ballard estimates they have gone through more than 200 items so far.
"My son is 6 years old, so it gives him a little chore to kind of watch it and see what comes and goes and who comes and goes and maybe learn a little lesson from it," Ballard says.
There are two shelves in the Blessing Box that Ballard and her son, Paxton, fill with non-perishable food and toiletries such as soap and feminine hygiene products.
They check on the box and restock several times a day.
"Every time we pull into the driveway, Paxton bolts out to the box to get inventory and see what’s new or what's left or if something has been moved," Ballard says. "I think it's really awesome."
All of the items are free, and with the Blessing Box available 24-7, there’s a sense of anonymity that comes with it that you won’t find at a traditional community food pantry.
Most of the interactions with the box on West 13th Street have come under the cover of darkness.
"Most of the traffic is in the middle of the night, I would say between midnight and 7 in the morning," Ballard says. "I have specifically only seen one person actually using it. I've seen several people dropping things off."
And that’s the beauty of the Blessing Box: It’s not just about the withdrawals. Donations are also coming in around the clock. Ballard says they make a point to leave some room on the shelves in case people passing by want to drop off items.
"Within the first week, we had a couple of boxes that were left at the base of the Blessing Box," Ballard says. "People have donated a little bit of money, so I do have a little bit of money set aside so I can continue to buy things to keep it stocked. I want to keep it up as long as it’s needed, so I just hope that it continues to be a success."
By most accounts, the first Blessing Box started in Oklahoma back in June. After a few social media posts, the idea has been quickly spreading across the U.S.
That’s how Ballard and a lot of other people got inspired.
"I actually saw a picture of it on Facebook," Ballard says. "There was one at Table Rock that was quite a bit bigger than mine, but it gave me the idea of what I wanted to do. And I actually screen-shot it and sent to a friend of mine and he just built it."
There are now Blessing Boxes of all sizes in many states, including a few others in Kansas. Some have religious connections.
For Ballard, it is about doing something small that could make a big difference to someone else.
"We did get a thank you note on Halloween, not sure when they left it, but that was really cool," Ballard says. "My son is the one who found it, so he was just ecstatic and ran in and told me, 'Mom, someone has left us a note.' So I ran out there. It was really awesome. It made us feel good that [the Blessing Box] was appreciated by whoever else who was using it.
With winter on the way, this mother and son are now thinking about what they’ll do during the cold months.
Instead of cans, they might put out more dried food items like oatmeal or hot chocolate packets. Instead of body wash, they’ll add bars of soap.
But what they won’t do is take down the Blessing Box.
"I mean, it’s just really heartwarming knowing that we are helping people," Ballard says. "And that was the whole goal."
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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