Blessing Box: Take What You Need, Leave What You Can

Jennifer Johnson-Spence and WebJunction /

This is the second article in a series published in collaboration with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), highlighting innovation shared on ARSL's amazing and active Listserv (a wonderful benefit to Membership!) from members working in libraries serving small and rural communities. Read the first article here.

Photo of Blessing Box as shared on Social Media

Blessing Box Announcement, courtesy Cooke County Library

ARSL member Jennifer Johnson-Spence, serves as director at the Cooke County Library in Gainesville, Texas, in a very rural county (service population 36,119) situated on the Red River, which separates North Texas from Oklahoma. In February, Jennifer responded to a post to the Listserv which asked if anyone hosted something like the food library at the Estevan Public Library in Saskatchewan.

Jennifer shared that their library has set up, just outside the library, a repurposed newspaper box with one simple message: “This is a Blessing Box. Take what you need. Leave what you can.” In just a few short months since they began stocking the Blessing Box, it’s been a huge success! We reached out to learn a bit more from Jennifer through an interview, and she was thrilled to be able to share the story of their Blessing Box.

How did the idea come about, and how did you come up with the wonderful name?

My cousin set one up in Fort Worth and posted about it on Facebook. I saw it and thought, “I need to do this. Our community would benefit tremendously from this box.” So, I called him, and he gave me one of the boxes. (He had purchased 100 of the old newspaper boxes with the idea to set up giving boxes in different areas around North Texas.)

I knew I wanted to call it a Blessing Box. To me, it means that those who leave items are blessed enough to be able to do so, and that those who need to take items, are blessed that the items are there to take.

We knew this would meet a community need. We have just one local pantry, and they are opened very limited hours during the week and not at all on the weekend. Also, their location makes it hard for folks without transportation to get to them. They are supposed to be moving into Gainesville in the next year at a more accessible location.

How did you add the Blessing Box name and message?

When we got the box, it already had the word “FREE” on the top front. We have a Cricut die-cutting machine, and one of our Cricut-savvy staff members worked with me on selecting the color and font, and to decide on the wording. I didn’t want the title to be “religious” but more of a general saying. She gets all the credit for making it look so nice! It took a long time to get it on neatly. If a library doesn’t have a Cricut machine, be sure to ask in the community, and see if someone can help with the lettering.

How do you manage what’s put in there? Are there guidelines?

Inside the box, there are two shelves. The top shelf is for food items and the bottom shelf is for toiletries and small clothing items. We’ve even had folks leave coats and sweaters this winter.

There are no stated guidelines. Of course, no alcohol or tobacco is allowed on county property. So far, we haven’t had an issue with that. However, I do take out religious pamphlets on a daily basis. That’s not what the Blessing Box is about. The library is a neutral zone and I don’t want folks to feel that they can’t take stuff if they don’t take the religious information. The Blessing Box is a no obligation zone. “Take what you need. Leave what you can.”

These are the items most commonly donated and used to stock the Blessing Box:

  • Canned food with ring-pulls
  • Socks
  • Mittens
  • Hand warmers
  • Crackers
  • Toilet paper
  • Non-perishable foods
  • Bottled water
  • Small snacks
  • Toiletries, including hand soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • Baby wipes

These were items we noticed were getting taken over other items, so that’s why we came up with the list. The community has been good about bringing items in when we post a need on Facebook and the Friends group has been buying items for it as well. My dentist gave me a big donation of personal size toothpaste and clear pouches with a toothbrush, floss and personal toothpaste. The pouches were a huge hit.

Blessing Box - front

Blessing Box, photo courtesy Cooke County Library.

Where do you store the donated items that don’t fit in the box?

Right now, we fill two boxes on our workroom counter and there’s a half a shelf in my office that we use too. Space is, of course, an issue for everything but we make it work with what we have. It’s worth the space it takes for the items so we can host the Blessing Box.

Do you have volunteers help manage the box? Does it take a lot to maintain?

The staff manage it. Every morning it gets stocked with items. Depending on the weather, we might stock it twice a day. Usually I’m the one who stocks it. I go through it daily, and try to put out a variety of items; if there are lots of items of one kind, I’ll take those and put them inside to put out later in the week. And there are community members who stock the Blessing Box with donations when we’re closed.

Have you received input from staff or the community on how it’s going? Were you surprised by the response?

The staff thinks it’s been a great asset to our community and the library. They think it makes people feel good leaving items and that those who need have been taking from it. No one seems to have been abusing it. They say they love getting to tell folks about it.

It’s been very positive for our community. When we first posted to let folks know about the Blessing Box, they were sharing it and tagging people to help spread the word.

I knew it was needed but am surprised to see how much it gets used. Our community doesn’t have a homeless shelter. Instead we have folks who live in the woods and the box has become very popular with them, as well as those living on fixed incomes, etc. We’re right off a main interstate and we get lots of folks in transit, so this has helped them too.

When we first posted about it on Facebook, we reached 14,807 people. There were 2,000 who viewed the post and 1,200 who interacted with the post. Since then we posted a restock of items request in January and it reached 21,300 people. There were 3,300 who viewed the post and 915 who interacted with it. I’d say the community is behind us in a huge way! We’ve never had posts get this much attention.

Is there anything else you would do differently, knowing now what you know?

I wish that I had asked our maintenance staff to build a platform with a drawer to set the box on, so that we could store the clothing items (coats, sweaters, etc.) somewhere, and not take up so much of the shelf space. We often just put these items in a cardboard box, which doesn’t guarantee they stay dry, and it would look neater.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, a few happy stories! I’ve become friendly with one of the men experiencing homelessness who uses the box. He used to wait across the street until I finished stocking the Blessing Box. Each week, he would come a bit closer, and now we share a brief conversation. He always makes sure to thank me and tell me how happy he is that it’s there. I’m hoping if he ever needs help, he’ll ask me where to go and I can provide him with that info.

We have several families who have kids that draw pictures on a brown paper bag and stuff them with food and $5. The mom told me that they’re teaching their kids to “pay it forward.” And for National Cupcake Day someone bought a cupcake from our local bakery and left it in the box!

Thank you to Jennifer for sharing all these wonderful details about their Blessing Box! You can contact her with additional questions at [email protected].

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