“Take what you need. Give what you can.”
That has been the mantra throughout Ross County for years and is emblazoned on most of the 19 active donation boxes in the area, known to residents as “blessing boxes.” Those boxes, which are mostly located near parks, schools and churches, are a community project to provide nonperishable foods and personal hygiene products to the less fortunate.
“We have a lot of working poor here in Ross County,” says Bill Hickel, one of the builders of blessing boxes. “They make too much money to get food assistance, but we know what the reality is: one income just doesn’t do much these days.”
In 2017, data from a study by Feeding America showed the food insecurity rate in Ross County was 15%. According to a report by the Ohio Department of Education in October 2018, over 2,500 students applied for a free lunch and nearly 400 students applied for a reduced-price lunch throughout the county. In response to the need in the community, residents like Hickel and Daniel DeGarmo, the leader of the grassroots movement, individually began constructing boxes that year to offer constant access to supplies countywide. Hickel’s uniform blessing boxes cost about $300, but they are built to last with plexiglass windows, self-closing doors, sheet metal, 3/4-inch exterior plywood and yellow pine for some of the framework.
“We’ve got a lot of reasons we could be bitter, but we’re trying to move beyond that,” Hickel says. “And people are starting to love others and realize there are others who aren’t nearly as fortunate as we are.”
Although the project has been organized and managed by adults, the youth in Ross County have taken initiative to stock the boxes, including local Girl Scout troops and religious organizations. After Youth Sunday, the last Sunday service of the month at Bourneville Christian Union Church, the children restock a blessing box in town near Twin Dairy Hut, 11673 U.S. 50.
In 2017, Bishop Flaget School installed a blessing box on campus with the sponsorship of Southern Ohio Survivors (SOS), a local program founded by breast cancer survivor Lynn Bunstine that assists people during and after treatment for life-threatening illnesses. The project has taught children from preschool to eighth grade about sacrifice and almsgiving. “As a Catholic school, an important part of our state is care of the neighbor, and we work with the kids on the social justice issues and understanding that if we are given much, much is expected of us,” says Bishop Flaget Principal Laura Corcoran. “… It’s important to us that when our kids leave Bishop Flaget, they understand that they have a responsibility to care for their fellow man.”
The children do not just donate canned food. They also collect personal hygiene items, gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, raincoats and school supplies. The seventh and eighth graders are responsible for filling the box with items stored in a stock room at the parochial school, says Linda Kerr, the physical education teacher at Bishop Flaget and a board member of SOS. “When they fill the blessing box in the morning and at the end of the school day it’s empty, that really is a kind of wakeup call for them about the need in the community,” Corcoran says.
As 11,560 people in Ross County suffer from a food shortage that can diminish healthy and active lifestyles, generous residents strive to provide a blessing through nutrient-rich food. “They can find in the box a source of meal,” says Hickel. “We’ve had a lot of people tell us … ‘That really got me through.’”