A local initiative that provides food and toiletries for the hungry, the homeless and anyone in need shone in the national spotlight Tuesday afternoon.
Jane Page Thompson and Melanie Inabinet from Aiken appeared on the nationally syndicated “The Kelly Clarkson Show” to talk about the Blessing Boxes project they started in December two years ago. The boxes, located throughout Aiken County and beyond, provide nonperishable food items, hygiene products, diapers and other necessities for anyone who needs them.
Inabinet wanted to bring Blessing Boxes to Aiken after reading about them in other communities on social media, Thompson said.
“She was worried about the homeless, and the whole idea that we have food scarcity wasn't a new idea in my mind,” Thompson said Tuesday morning during a telephone interview. “It seemed like a great way for private enterprise to step up to the plate.”
Thompson said the boxes are not “necessarily for people who are homeless.”
“They're for everybody,” she said. “These boxes are for people who find themselves short whether they have to make a choice between spending money on medicine or food or just when they have things happening in their lives and they're looking at getting the car fixed or buying groceries. Well, there are Blessing Boxes where they can go get some food.”
The Blessing Boxes perfectly fit Tuesday's theme on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” a tribute to the late Fred Rogers, the creator of “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood” on public television. The episode focused on being a good neighbor and giving back.
Thompson's husband, Mark, gave her the idea to take Clarkson's #GoodNeighborChallenge, which asked viewers to share stories of how they had “gone out of their way to be a good neighbor.”
“He's a huge Kelly Clarkson fan and watches the show,” Thompson said. “He said you should do it with one of the Blessing Boxes.”
Thompson posted a picture of a Blessing Box to the hashtag, and a few days later, the show's producers contacted her, asking if the posting had helped the initiative.
“I said let me look at our fundraiser, which, because of the hashtag, had generated a lot of traffic. We actually saw an increase in donations,” said Thompson about the fundraiser to raise the money to buy the materials to build boxes next year.
After Skyping cross-country, the show's producers invited Thompson and Inabinet to fly to Los Angeles at their expense to be part of the audience.
“So Melanie and I went the Friday before Thanksgiving, and I brought my husband because it was his idea. I couldn't leave him at home,” Thompson said. “He loves the music part of the show and was seated close to the band. He had a great time hanging out with the band. It was definitely a whirlwind experience. We were in Los Angeles less than a day.”
At the studio, they saw a screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the current movie about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks, and they and the other audience members each received a red, zip-up cardigan sweater, Mr. Rogers' trademark attire on his TV show.
During a brief conversation with Clarkson from the audience, Inabinet and Thompson answered her question about how ”you are working with your neighbors and helping.”
“So, we're from a small town, Aiken, South Carolina, and just as with any town, we all see struggles with homelessness and food scarcity,” Inabinet said. “So we came up with the idea of doing Blessing Boxes, which is a 'take what you need, leave what you can' initiative where the community can add food, health and beauty items, pet food or anything like that that somebody may need so that anybody, not just the homeless, can take from it.”
“And in two days, our fundraiser had made more money than we had in two months, so thank you,” Thompson said.
“That's awesome,” Clarkson said. “Thank you, Jane Page and Melanie, so much for what you're doing.”
Thompson, Inabinet and community leaders dedicated the first three Blessing Boxes in Osbon Park, Perry Memorial Park and Library Park in Aiken on Dec. 26, 2017.
Since then, boxes have been installed at USC Aiken, Aiken Technical College, Kennedy Middle School and beyond Aiken County.
“The initial three boxes two years ago have inspired a massive movement in nine to 10 counties in our area,” Thompson said.
The Blessing Box initiative also has created partnerships with the Veterans Council, the Aiken County Career Center and other organizations, whose members and students build the boxes, and church groups, women's clubs, homeowners associations and schools, which adopt and keep the boxes stocked.
“It's always great when people post a picture on our Facebook page showing a lot of kids and their parents after they go to the grocery store putting items in the box,” Thompson said. “What's been really amazing in my experience has been when I've been at the boxes stocking them and someone will come up and put items in and tell me that they had to take something last week because they was a little short. They'll say I'm so glad that this box is here, and now that I've gotten paid, I'm putting stuff back in. It's kind of neat.”
A two-year anniversary celebration for the first three Blessing Boxes will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 26 at the Blessing Box at the Aiken County Public Library playground at 314 Chesterfield St. S.
“We're inviting people to come and bring contributions and have some apple cider and cookies,” Thompson said.