Leave what you can, take what you need.

That's the simple rule for the Columbus Blessing Boxes Project that launched in January 2018, when Carroll resident Gretchen Davis decided to teach her three youngest children about giving.

She said the Blessing Boxes, which are part of a grassroots movement in multiple states, are outdoor cabinets in public places that are stocked with nonperishable food items, basic toiletries and hygiene items, baby supplies and anything else that might be considered "a blessing" to someone in need.

Items are anonymously donated and anonymously received, Davis said.

Donations can be made at any time, directly into the box or to the box's host.

Davis said central Ohio currently has 26 Blessings Boxes, each with a caretaker. The hosts manage the donations for the box, filling it as needed or storing extra items if capacity is an issue.

"I started the project as a way for our young children to get involved with giving back," she said. "My kids are really young -- ages 5, 7 and 9 -- and I want them to grow up and know part of their job as a person is (to help others). Every place I contacted, like soup kitchens, wouldn't allow them to come because they are young."

Davis said she understood the restrictions, but she didn't want to wait.

"I just decided we should do our own thing, and they can be as involved as they want to be," she said.

Davis said she regularly takes her children to a grocery store to shop for the box at Lithopolis United Methodist Church, 80 N. Market St. in Lithopolis, the closest location to her.

"They go up and down the aisles and get fruit cups and soups," she said.

Davis said the items most needed are canned meats, canned corn, tomato sauce, canned fruits, low-sodium soups, pasta and pasta sauces, low-sodium mixed vegetables, canned chili, diced tomatoes, rice and brown beans in 1-pound bags, peanut butter and jelly, granola bars, oatmeal, applesauce, fruit cups, raisins and shelf-stable milk.

Davis said her inspiration came from her sister, Katie Dahlheim, who founded the Lowcountry Blessing Box Project in 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina, where 61 boxes have been added.

"I thought if they could do it, we could here," Davis said. "She guided me through. We purchased a couple pieces of furniture from thrift and converted them."

Davis said she doesn't like asking people for money, and it is expensive to become a nonprofit.

"I ask people to donate," she said. "Basically, it's for anybody who wants to have one. ... The Columbus Dispatch gave me old newspaper dispensers. The dispensers are small but they work."

Davis said she had to find locations that could maintain a box.

"There's no application process," she said. "We always try to put it on private property, a church or business. There are some at parks. I haven't done any of those. Some call them free pantries.

"The city of Groveport did one and said to put it on (my) map. Some cities are really into it and others aren't having it."

Davis said the Westerville Estates mobile-home park, 11050 Fancher Road in Delaware County's Harlem Township, east of Westerville, was one of the first Blessing Box locations because its host was one of the first to contact her.

The red Blessing Box is near the mobile-home park's mailboxes.

"There was a woman who lived in the neighborhood and she wanted ... a box," Davis said. "She had significant health issues, so another woman who lives in Sunbury is taking care of it. Her neighbors donate.

"It's used significantly. A lot of the kids know it's there and will go get snacks."

The power of social media

Jeanne Whit, the Sunbury resident overseeing the Fancher Road box, said helping people is part of who she is.

"I have always been service-driven throughout my life and it has been a big part of how, as a family, we have raised our children," she said. "I came across the Blessing Boxes project on Facebook and saw the need for a new host for the Westerville location.

"I was already familiar with the Westerville Estates through Girl Scouting, (and I) called and said I would love to be the host, and here I am."

Whit started a Facebook page to spread the word.

"Posting pictures of before and after the box was filled was and is (a way) to let people see that there is a great need at this location," she said. "In the beginning, it was a slow process of having enough donations to keep the box stocked. I had been buying most of the supplies myself and filling it initially once a week.

"We make it a point to thank each and every donor anonymously by sharing a photo of the donation on our page. This is 'our box' and it wouldn't be possible without their generous donations."

Whit said anyone may contact her or inquire about how to donate by sending a direct message on facebook.com/WestervilleBlessingBox.

"Helping people is what it's all about in my humble opinion," she said. "It's a small, free pantry that hopefully lessens the daily burden of family meal planning.

"Whatever the need is, I am extremely grateful to play a small role in filling that gap for families in need."

As people began hearing about the project, Davis said, she also connected with the YouthBuild Columbus Community School, 1183 Essex Ave. in Columbus.

"They found me and have a construction certification and made three boxes," she said.

Ronnelle Sammons, assistant director of YouthBuild, said the school got involved in early 2018 after seeing social-media requests for construction of the boxes.

YouthBuild is a chartered dropout-recovery high school serving students who wish to receive their high school diplomas while earning certifications in construction, as nurse's aides, in phlebotomy and in Microsoft Office, according to its website, ybccs.org.

Sammons said school leaders have been grateful for the opportunity to build the boxes.

"The mission of YouthBuild Columbus Community School is to advance underserved youth through education, job training, personal and leadership development and community service," she said. "Community service is a big part of that mission. We have issues with food insecurity in our own neighborhood."

Sammons said students made a Blessing Box for the school. It sits outside the building and provides food for a large homeless population in the area.

"We then made two additional boxes that have been placed in the community," Sammons said. "Our students are 16 to 21 years of age and come from all over central Ohio. We hope to be able to make more boxes this year."

Davis said many people have made their own Blessing Boxes.

"Some are more beautiful than others, but they do the same job," she said. "Most people are very willing and open to donate. Some (visitors) have told me they didn't know how they would have fed their families this week. They were desperate."

For more information about the Blessing Boxes, go to facebook.com/ColumbusBlessingBox or instagram.com/cbusblessingboxes.



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