The Newtown Blessing Box came to life in just a few whirlwind hours.
It was inspired by a moment in late March, when Maureen Lee noticed a distraught woman outside her home in Sydney's Newtown. Lee lives near the Asylum Seekers Centre and often sees refugees picking up essentials from the charity. But this afternoon, the centre was shut and the woman was upset she couldn't access food she needed.
"I got a little bit emotional," says Lee. She returned home and told housemates Michelle Gomes and Joyce Akinpe what happened – and the idea of setting up a streetside community pantry was sparked. "At six o'clock, the three of us jumped into a car, went curbside shopping and got a cupboard from a back lane."
By 10:00pm, they'd installed it into their driveway and stocked it with what they had in their pantry. The Newtown Blessing Box was born.
"That's how it started, with four tins and some Weet-Bix," says Lee.
The next day, they refilled it after a big Aldi shopping mission.
"Then it was all gone by that afternoon," says Gomes. "We realised it wasn't sustainable without community help."
So they dropped off 37 pamphlets – all they could afford – to neighbouring homes, which explained Newtown Blessing Box's concept and launched social media accounts to spread the word, hoping other locals would donate goods.
"Suddenly, the whole neighbourhood knew about it," says Akinpe.
The cupboard began filling up with dried pasta, tinned food, bread, instant noodles – even hard-to-find hygiene products (like sanitary pads and ever-elusive rolls of toilet paper). A jar of homemade pickles was dropped off and so were home-cooked sweets.
"Someone made homemade toffees, that went straight away," says Lee. "Everything is so diverse and the needs are so diverse."
"What we'd like is to start a movement. Imagine a world where this is normal in every suburb."
"When we dropped off the voucher, it was almost overwhelming to see how much people had donated to the box. It was overflowing with so many different necessities, you could feel a lot of love from everyone," says Walsh.
"We've had a few of our customers come and tell us they saw the voucher there and didn't want to take it as they felt there was people a lot worse off than them – which really gives a sense of how much community spirit there is in this area."
Hartsyard's generosity inspired Michael Le, who runs Great Aunty Three nearby, to donate a $30 meal at his eatery. "The people who used the voucher, I think they really did need it,” he says.
"We looked after them," he says. "They had one vegetarian pho, two pork rolls and we threw in a couple of drinks. It was more than $30, but it means nothing to us, it means more to make someone have faith in humanity."
This wasn't a one-off donation, either. Now the voucher's been used, Le will contribute another to Newtown Blessing Box. "This is like a boomerang. When people use it, we help someone, we put it back. So long as no one abuses the opportunity, we'll continue to [support it]," he says.
It's just one of many acts of kindness the streetside pantry has inspired. People often walk by the box on their way to work, take note of what's missing, and then stock it accordingly on the way home. "They'll go, 'oh, I'm going to buy milk, because I didn't see it in the cupboard,' and that's their little happy thing for the day," says Lee. "It's incredible."
While Newtown Blessing Box was originally started to support refugees, the Asylum Seekers Centre has since reopened and is providing assistance – so refugees only make up 5 per cent of people requiring help from the pantry.
"The response is coming from people who are living paycheque-by-paycheque," says Lee. They're people who lost their jobs (Akinpe, herself, recently was let go from her event coordinator role) or are waiting for Centrelink payments.
The cupboard is plastered in messages of support from locals, which helps take the stigma away from people who seek charity from Newtown Blessing Box. Gomes' dad also installed lights that allow people to safely take food from the pantry at any time. "It's very vulnerable taking things, so we wanted to make sure it was available 24/7 for everyone," says Lee.
Akinpe says they check the box every day, remove any expired goods and sanitise the pantry. Remarkably, the pantry hasn't been vandalised – in fact, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. An appearance on Channel Nine News even inspired visits and donations from people who live nearly an hour away.
Akinpe says a woman approached them, saying she'd started her own version, but no one took her food. They gave her advice on how to spread the word and gain support for her project. They hope the blessing box idea could take off in other suburbs.
"What we'd like is to start a movement," she says.
"Imagine a world where this is normal in every suburb," adds Lee.
You just need a few tins and Weet-Bix to begin.