Food pantry at Northmoor City Park
June Martel’s family knew they would never forget their wife and mother’s caring nature, but they yearned for others–even those she’s never met–to experience her generosity. A simple wooden “blessing box” in Northmoor is helping them spread that love.
Widower Ernie, and the couple’s two adult children, said it’s as if her spirit reaches out from the converted kitchen cabinet each time a hungry soul chooses from the free, non-perishable food and personal care items stored inside.
“My mother was always a giving person,” Bonnie Kramer said. (We knew) “this would be the perfect thing to keep her memory alive.” Ernie said he also liked the idea that the box could stand as a reminder of them both someday.
“I was trying to think of something that would honor her, even when I’m gone,” he said, adding that he considers the box “a hand-up and not a hand-out.”
Ernie has a special name for the box. “I call it a ‘grab-and-go’ place,” he said. A notice on the box asks others to use responsibly: “Take what you need and leave what you can.”
Kramer said she and her brother, Kevin, knew it was important to keep their father busy once their mother died of complications of Alzheimer’s about two years ago. Ernie, a former grocery store manager, has a “workaholic” personality that, when coupled with stay-at-home practices due to the pandemic, has made for a tough time since June died about two years ago, of complications of Alzheimer’s. In search of something they could do that would fill the hours while also helping someone, Bonnie first stumbled across online posts about rock-painting. She and her dad collaborated by her painting small rocks white while he used permanent markers to create designs. They found the rocks at parks and playgrounds and scattered their creations at public venues for children to find.
During online searches, Kramer discovered posts about “blessing boxes” and the three knew they had to create their own. Ernie worked as a grocer for more than 50 years, so he liked the tie to his former occupation, Kramer said. Online research described the mobile food pantries as a spin-off of the wildly popular small library boxes that dot the country, offering books for check-out. The siblings and their father decided the project would fill the hours while helping defeat hunger.
“There aren’t that many around,” Kramer said.
They finally discovered a blessing box in nearby Riverside, even making a few donations while contemplating how to proceed (they still visit that box to deposit items that won’t fit in theirs.) The three, along with Northmoor’s mayor, were strategic about their choice of location, choosing a spot near low-income housing and in an easy-to-reach area and yet far enough from public view to offer anonymity. Kramer said their timing was right.
“With this pandemic, everybody could use help,” Kramer said, adding that personal care items especially are popular, due to their cost.
Once they discovered the Northmoor City Park, they contacted the small city’s mayor for permission. Lynda Wilson said she loved the idea but was a little concerned about the box’s upkeep. She knew the box would require lots of attention and said the Martels have not disappointed since they dutifully check on the box at least twice each week.
“It’s been a blessing to our community,” Wilson said, adding that the box’s goods are well utilized.
The city of 325 people includes a lot of senior citizens on fixed incomes whom she believes regularly partake of the box but believe if it was in a more visible location, they would be reluctant. In addition, children who play at the park are using the box as a snack station while there.
Wilson also likes the convenience factor.
“How nice if you run out of toothpaste or something you can go down and pick some up and not have to go to the store,” she said.
Kevin was tasked with creating a suitable home for the pantry. He shopped at Habitat Restore, where he purchased a large-sized kitchen cabinet which he weather-proofed using pieces of siding from a project at his home. He and his father decorated the box with the title “Little Food Pantry.” The inside of the box states: “In honor of June.”
The family even chose 9-11, a historic day, to launch the project, knowing the day terrorists destroyed New York’s twin towers would be easy to remember. Each month, Martel distributes fliers throughout the Tiffany Springs senior care center where he lives in an apartment. Three milk crates located outside his apartment are always overflowing with donations. Although he only asked his neighbors to donate one item per month, he’s been surprised by the outpouring of help, with many donating full bags of groceries each time.
“I could not do this by myself,” Ernie said.
Fellow resident John McCarthy drives him to tend to the box one weekday while he and his daughter re-stock, removing opened and expired items, on weekends.
Martel said the box has been the perfect project and June would be proud of their efforts. In fact, if the tables were turned, he’s certain “June would have done it for me.”