McCabe Coolidge and his partner Karen Day, new residents from Virginia, were using the computers at the Gulfport Senior Center while waiting for their Wi-Fi to be installed. They overheard a young pregnant woman, clearly distressed, ask a Senior Center volunteer how she could obtain food from the center’s food pantry. The woman did not meet the requirements for food assistance so the volunteer gave her a list of other food pantries in the area and organizations that could help.
“The woman refused,” said Coolidge, who, with Day, ran a food pantry in Virginia. “So that exchange ended for me on a difficult note.”
Coolidge relayed the story to Margaret Tober, president of Gulfport Neighbors, the local community service organization. Tober had recently seen a Facebook post about outdoor free pantries, similar to the little free libraries, erected in other parts of the country stocked with non-perishable food and personal items designed for people in need. Tober immediately mentioned the idea to the Gulfport Neighbors board, which took on the project and agreed to cover the costs of the first three pantries.
“If I hadn’t heard that story, we might not have started so soon. It really touched me,” said Tober. “We don’t have resources for people in that situation. The Little Free Pantries can provide some help. People wanting to donate food and supplies can just go and put food in, and those who need food can take what they need.”
According to Tober, the city of Gulfport liked the idea right away, and it was decided that the first Little Free Pantry would be installed in front of the entrance to the fire station on 24th Avenue South.
“I am very excited about the innovative Little Free Pantries,” said Yolanda Roman, Ward III councilmember. “Not only does it represent the spirit of giving, it goes a step further by making it much more accessible for Gulfport residents and friends to donate in a very convenient way. I applaud Margaret Tober and Gulfport Neighbors for their continued focus on finding ways to identify areas of need and organizing volunteers to make things just a little better for residents. The Little Free Pantries will no doubt be a part of Gulfport’s continued commitment to making our city a great place to live.”
Jim O’Reilly, Gulfport city manager, concurred. “The city looks forward to the success of the program at a monitored location such as the fire station,” he said, “and can only appreciate the empathy displayed by it.”
Lucas Pitzen, a woodworking artist and son of Gulfport artist Tom Pitzen, agreed to build the first pantry.
“I was glad to help after my father asked me,” said Lucas, 16, who creates furniture, cutting boards and chess tables.
Tom donated the supplies for the first pantry, including repurposed wood from the 200-year-old cedar tree that fell at Yummy’s Casual Café during a tornado spawned by Tropical Storm Andrea in 2013.
“We decided to include something for good that came out of something bad,” said Tom.
The first Little Free Pantry debuted during the opening ceremonies at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on January 14, then was set up at the fire station.
“It is best to check the pantry first to see what is there and might be needed,” said Tober. “If the pantry is full when bringing donations, they may be taken to the fire department. During business hours, ring the doorbell. After business hours, leave the items on the porch next door directly behind the pantry,”
The Gulfport Presbyterian Church has committed as the next location, and Gulfport Neighbors is looking for a spot in a populated area along 49th Street South.
“People are already asking how they can donate on the Gulfport Neighbors Facebook page,” said Tober. “We will always take donations as they help do other things as well.”
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