It was an idea inspired by Mr. Rogers, the iconic television personality and minister. How can we be better neighbors? Two years ago, church school teachers, children and parishioners from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Wayne began the process of answering that question. Their first idea, as part of Lent, was to fill backpacks with supplies for those in need and make them ready on demand. Some parishioners carried them in their cars if they were traveling just in case they met someone in need.
Then parishioner Melissa Acton heard about the “little free pantry,” a small outside standalone pantry stocked with essentials. Her first thought: “we can do this.” Acton brought the idea to the church and another parishioner George Arnott, who had a passion for woodworking and teaching children, ran with it. George lost his wife Mary Jo months before and was looking for a project to honor her life.
Arnott met with the church’s children to design and ultimately build the pantry project. The children decided the pantry should mirror an actual refrigerator and they used that as a guide. The project, sketched on a napkin, became reality.
“There was such enthusiasm from the younger kids in church,” said Father Joseph Smith, the church’s rector. “They always wanted to visit with the older kids and see the progress.”
The location of the pantry, near a bus stop, would ensure foot traffic and easy access to the pantry’s items. In September 2017, the pantry was officially feted and stocked with food and some toiletries. Unfortunately, Arnott, its main architect and leader, had passed away a few months prior. His family, however, was there to celebrate in his absence.
Anxiously, church members watched and waited to see how it would do. “We had a lot of people worrying that it would be vandalized or that someone might take all the food,” said Acton. “We have not had any issues.” But even if they do, they are now well equipped to handle it thanks to involvement from all of their neighbors. Radnor Middle School across the street and a Brownie troop have all organized food drives to stock the pantry. Young ballerinas who attend a dance class at St. Mary’s have brought in supplies as well. Local moms have asked their friends to fill bags for the pantry.
“We have also seen a jump in what we can take to St. Mary’s pantry in Chester,” said Smith. “There is abundance.”
During some of the coldest days of January, a church member named Edith Helms knit hats and put them in the pantry. All were used. “I think the coolest thing that happened was when we first placed a box of diapers in the pantry,” said Smith. “Someone just took a few versus taking the entire pack. ‘Give us today your daily bread.’ Not everything I need for the rest of my time on earth, just today. You could tell that people were only taking what they needed.“
Reese Acton, Melissa’s son, was a critical part of the pantry project. “I didn’t expect the type of reaction that we got from the community, he said. “I expected it to succeed but I think it’s been doing a lot better than everyone expected.”
The project also uncovered need in their own backyard. “Most of us have grown up in this area,” said Allyson Radford, a vestry member who is also in charge of youth ministry. “We found a hidden demographic of need that we might not have seen before.”
The church is hopeful others will replicate the project. “This is a teaching tool for us,” said Smith. “It is a practical example of what can be achieved through our church school program and what it means to put faith into action.”
To learn more about creating your own pantry project, contact Father Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org, 610-688-1313.