Seminole blessing box works for those who give and those who need

Published June 20 2017
Updated June 22 2017

SEMINOLE — A national trend that features neighbors anonymously helping neighbors has come to the Seminole Community Library at St. Petersburg College.

A bright yellow "blessing box," similar to the Little Free Library book exchanges popular worldwide, debuted last month. The glass front cabinet is filled with toiletries and nonperishable food items. It has no lock, and because it's on public property, it can be accessed day or night.

Like blessing boxes from New Hampshire to Texas, a hand-lettered sign affixed to its front encourages passersby to take what they need and give what they can.

The concept of freely giving and taking with no questions asked intrigued Seminole resident Michelle Radin, who learned about blessing boxes from an online news story about a mom and a little boy who created one in Wichita, Kansas.

Radin, 60, immediately began wondering where she could start one in her own community. She thought of her neighborhood but wanted the box to be seen by more people. She considered a church but didn't want the box to be connected to a particular denomination.

Then it struck her: Why not the library?

"You've got the little ones, you've got the college students, you've got the senior citizens," Radin said. "It's the perfect place where the whole community goes."

She contacted library director Michael Bryan and then met with him and St. Petersburg College provost Mark Strickland to show them plans a carpenter friend had drawn up. Bryan and Strickland were quick to agree to a six-month trial and gave permission for the box to be installed just outside the library's front door.

At first, Radin stocked the blessing box herself, but others quickly stepped up and followed her example. Soon, the little cabinet was filled with items ranging from the simple to the sublime: chicken-flavored ramen noodles and Redken hair products, Q-tips and organic Thai coconut milk, pink plastic razors and mandarin blossom bath soak.

Barbara Cottrell, one of Radin's neighbors, told her fellow nurses at Bardmoor Surgery Center about the blessing box. The nurses quickly amassed several boxes of supplies, enough to stock the cabinet for weeks.

"It really surprised me," Cottrell said. "Some of the people who could least afford it contributed the most."

Scott and Kira Munger introduced the blessing box to their children — Charles, 10, and Victoria, 8 — to teach them about serving their community. Charles searched the house for items his family didn't need, gathering a flashlight and some batteries and adding them to the collection of toothbrushes and other personal hygiene items his parents bought.

The family makes regular visits to the blessing box, eager each time they approach it to see if what they left the last time has been claimed.

"We hope maybe someday the people who are taking things will do the same for someone else," Charles said.

Which appears to be happening already.

Jesse Segraves, 21, discovered the blessing box on one of his frequent trips to the library. At first, the Seminole resident, who works two jobs, took things like bottled water from the box.

Recently, he's been bringing things he doesn't need, like an extra toothbrush and a box of granola bars.

"I try to only take what I need," Segraves said. "I try to give back something equal to what I take."

Radin says that's the whole idea behind tzedakah, a Jewish principle that guided her in the creation of the blessing box. While the second highest form of tzedakah is to give donations anonymously to unknown recipients, the highest form is to give a gift that will result in the recipient supporting him or herself.

In the long run, she said, it's about people helping people.