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This community street pantry has become a beacon of human kindness under isolation

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher

With our lives changing by the day and physical distancing measures keeping us in our homes, all this isolation can have a way of making you feel, well, isolated. 

But in Sydney's Inner West, a community pantry has popped up on a suburban street corner and become a beacon of care. The concept is simple: take what you need and leave what you can. The offerings have ranged from grocery items to sanitary products, wine bottles and cigarettes to notes of kindness. 

The Newtown Blessing Box was set up a couple of weeks ago by Maureen Lee, Michelle Gomes and Joyce Akinpe. The housemates live down the street from the Asylum Seekers Centre, a not-for-profit community centre. While the ASC is continuing its support work, its opening hours and delivery style have changed under Covid-19 restrictions. When these changes were first introduced, there was some confusion and people showing up to access support only to find the doors closed.

“It was during one of these changes that we saw a lady arrive at the centre, who did not understand why the front door was closed and we saw the despair on her face, which was heartbreaking. Some others arrived, not understanding what was going on either,” says the trio. This spurred them into action: “It led to a huge desire to give back to the community in these uncertain times.”

That same night they drove around the neighbourhood curbside shopping for the right cupboard to set up their street pantry.

“The cupboard came from a back lane in Camperdown, where it whispered to us that its name used to be Camperdown Closet, and that it was happy to pivot in these challenging times and be of service to the community. It is now living its authentic truth as the gender-neutral Newtown Blessing Box.”

It didn’t take long before the Blessing Box was being frequented by people in need. 

“In our first two days we were filling the Blessing Box up with what we had and did a second run ourselves. When it all went within hours we thought “this is not sustainable” so we printed flyers and dropped them off to 37 houses in our area. With the foot traffic, letterbox flyers and power of word of mouth, the Blessing Box became inundated on day four and five.”

The Blessing Box is currently being regularly topped up with practical and thoughtful supplies. There’s an almost daily supply of toilet paper from a stealthy donor, handmade face masks, condoms, and vouchers donated from Enmore Road restaurants including Hartsyard and Great Aunty Three. Local artist Cheeky Palm has been donating small artworks. The Blessing Box has also caught the eye of neighbourhood documentarian Jo Wallace from Humans of Newtown.

View this post on Instagram

‘I’m an event coordinator so our industry is completely gone. I’m concerned for the future because I don’t even know if we’re going to be able to have events anymore if we don’t have a vaccine. ‘It’s scary because I’ve been in Australia for 7 years. I came here with all the energy to start a new life. I would never have imagined I would be going through such a situation. I never was scared of working or learning something new. And I wonder, where is this person? I need to find it. I feel like I’m drowning. Every time I try to hold something it’s just gone. ‘I’m sad because my friends are losing jobs and they have nothing. I have a lot of international friends and they are scared. We feel lonely because the government doesn’t help everyone. I understand, you need to look after your citizens but at the same time all these people who came here and they support the country in some way – paying taxes and everything - and now they are left with nothing and they can’t even go back to their country. ‘I just wake up every day thinking that it’s a nightmare and I want to wake up from it.’ #humansofnewtown #hon #newtown #innerwest #newtownsydney #coronavirus #pandemic

A post shared by Humans of Newtown (@humansofnewtown) on

As the colour of the local community has shone through in the donations, the diversity of people seeking the assistance of the Blessing Box has been evident, and it's much broader than people seeking asylum. 

“We have identified homeless people, workers that lost their jobs, parents struggling to make ends meet due to job loss or hours reductions, and international students,” the trio explained.

“We have also seen the mental health benefits of the Blessing Box, with so many visitors simply coming by to smile, be in gratitude for what they have and to leave us notes. So many people have altered their walking routes to include a daily box visit! It really is a community project which has not only served a physical need, but also a human need for connection during such an uncertain time for us all.”

The Newtown Blessing box is located on the corner of Bedford and Station Streets in Newtown. Lee, Gomes and Akinpe sanitise and organise it daily. The doors remain open during the day, and at night there’s a light installed for after-dark visitors. The team now redistributes donations with two sister street pantries nearby, one of them is located at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. 

You can join the Newtown Blessing Box Facebook group and follow the happenings of this gender-neutral street pantry on Instagram

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