I AM TOPEKA: Donna Rae Pearson, Blessing Boxes
Emma Highfill | Photographer
The box was modeled after the “Little Free Library” concept, but rather than stocked with books, it was full of non-perishable food and toiletries, serving as a resource for anybody in need to come and take from without charge.
After learning more about this box and its purpose, Donna Rae set out on a mission to create these “Blessing Boxes” as they’re now known, for her own community.
“I had no resources to build my own, but at the time I was taking do-it- yourself workshops at Home Depot, so I approached them to see if they would host a workshop to build these boxes,” Donna Rae said. “And sure enough they said yes, and we had 10 to 15 people sign up.”
The first workshop was set for December of 2016. Unfortunately, because of a severe ice storm, many of the would-be attendees were unable to make the drive. Nevertheless, Donna Rae and three others did manage to convene, and together they crafted the first seven Blessing Boxes.
Once those first seven boxes had been completed, the next step was to find a place for them to be set up and people, or “hosts”, who could assist in their upkeep.
“My main focus has been to make boxes free of charge for folks who want them,” Donna Rae said. “I do ask them qualifying questions, but they’re mainly just to make sure that the host agrees to maintain their box and keep it stocked to the best of their ability."
Of course, being the host isn't just work. Donna Rae made sure it would be a fun experience that would allow the host to enjoy a real sense of ownership, as well.
“Every host is encouraged to decorate their box as they see fit,” Donna Rae said. “Mine is just white with a red door, but some others have beautiful graphics on them. The box at the Brass Rail is decorated to look like the courtyard at the back of the restaurant, and another is decorated to look like it has stained-glass windows.”
Unsurprisingly, the Blessing Boxes quickly became a huge hit.
In the spring of 2017, Donna Rae enlisted help from both the United Carpenters Association and the Washburn University Leadership Institute, who helped in spreading awareness for the program and facilitating a hands-on workshop.
“The workshop was great, but after we built more boxes, I had to go out and find hosts for all of them. So, for the most recent workshop I put on this past July, I secured the funding and hosts ahead of time, and almost all of the hosts were able to come build their boxes themselves.”
Through the efforts and generosity of nearly 70 volunteers and seven sponsors, the July workshop yielded a whopping 21 new Blessing Boxes—all in one day.
Naturally, with such growth, Donna Rae’s program evolved into an official non- profit organization. Today, Blessing Boxes of Topeka oversees 42 Blessing Boxes throughout the Topeka and Shawnee County area, each with its own host and plenty of volunteers to help with maintenance and stocking. Donna Rae serves as the president of Blessing Boxes of Topeka, and although she has a small dedicated staff in the organization, much of the work is still done by volunteers who simply take pride in their community and want to help out their neighbors.
That said, the organization is always open to more volunteers.
“One of the biggest challenges is, every day, somewhere in the city, a box is empty,” Donna Rae said.
Even though each box has a host and other volunteers keeping an eye on it, it is hard to predict what items might be in most need in which area on a given day. The most common items to be stocked are non-perishable foods, daily hygiene items, toiletries, school and office supplies, and other essentials—or as Donna Rae puts it, “We stock anything and everything someone might need on a daily basis except clothing and cars.”
It would seem, then, that Donna Rae’s vision for the organization might be to have a Blessing Box on every corner that would never run empty.
Quite the opposite, actually.
“My dream is that one day, the Blessing Boxes won’t be necessary,” Donna Rae said. “Someday, we’ll look back on this as part of history as something that had to happen, but hopefully won’t be needed in the future.”
Of course, until that day comes, the business side of things and the needs of the organization are always on Donna Rae’s mind. However, her end goal always has been to help create a world in which people always are willing to help out a neighbor and the need for social systems such as Blessing Boxes is no more.
It began with Donna Rae carrying on the work and legacy of her great- grandmother, who fed the hungry from her personal garden in western Kansas, and of her mother, who was heavily involved in running a soup kitchen in Wichita. The Blessing Boxes are just the next step in the evolution of Donna Rae’s family tradition of taking care of those in need.
“We’re just trying to change the story for one person, for one day,” Donna Rae said. “If we can change that narrative and make their day a little bit better, or their choices a little bit easier, then we’ve made a difference.”