Wichita boy’s Blessing Boxes blow up

Paxton Burns and Mike Stoner do a little maintenance on Blessing Box No. 59.

By Debbi Elmore

An anti-hunger campaign started by a 6-year-old Wichita boy has turned into an intergenerational effort reaching into six other states.

Called Paxton’s Blessing Boxes after Paxton Burns, who’s now 11, the red boxes are stocked with donated food and personal hygiene products that are free for anyone to take. 

The endeavor has grown to 93 boxes at last count. Most are located in Sedgwick County, but Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina all boast one or more. Homeowners, churches, schools and other organizations that host the boxes are primarily responsible for keeping them filled with canned sausage and tuna, peanut butter, oatmeal, cereal, pasta and similar items. A network of volunteers such as retirees Mike Stoner and Patsy and Dennis Shirley pitch in.

Paxton’s mother, Maggie Ballard, first learned of a similar undertaking through a social media post five years ago. Two hours after showing it to her son, he asked if they could put up and fill a box in front of their Riverside home. They painted it red “because we like red,” Paxton said in an interview.

They spent $38 at Dollar Tree filling it the first time, but it has been stocked with donations ever since. 

“Our city and neighborhood have been extremely supportive in spreading the word and supplying us with donations” to keep that box and others going, Ballard said.

After friends and family spread word about the first box, other people asked if they could have a box of their own. Local and national media outlets have stoked interest in them as well. The Washington Post carried an article about Paxton last year, shortly after he won a humanitarian award from HumanKind Ministries, which provides services to poor and homeless residents of Sedgwick County.

 Stoner builds the boxes. A former auto mechanic, Stoner said he got involved almost by accident.

“My wife had some items to donate to Maggie and, in the ensuing conversation, the subject of the need for more boxes came up,” he said. “I said I could build some for her. Well, as they say, the rest is history.”

  The Shirleys volunteer as delivery people for those who are homebound. “PBB gave us something we could do together,” she says. “Repairing and filling the boxes got us up and out of the house during those long pandemic days. It kept us from going stir crazy. It felt good to get out, and we knew we were helping to fill a food need for those who were especially hard hit during Covid-19. It takes a village.” 

Other volunteers organize food drives for the boxes, sort food and make sure food isn’t out of date. 

The boxes are busy. “We go through $500 to $600 a week in groceries just in our box alone,” Ballard says. “What we love about our program is that it provides a little bit of anonymity. No IDs, no questions, no judgment. ‘Take a blessing when you need one and leave a blessing when you can’ is our motto.”

One focus is serving children when school is not in session. Popular items for children include crackers, chips, juice boxes, water, granola bars and Pop-Tarts. 

Some food is stored at a warehouse downtown. While many boxes are “self-sustaining,” Ballard said, “some of them need help. They have more taking than giving. We want them all to be equally successful, so we host quarterly food drives in hopes to help keep them afloat.

Ballard said Paxton hopes the boxes someday reach across the United States.

“We see people taking and dropping off daily, and there are no words to describe that feeling.”

If you would like to help or sponsor a box, visit www.paxtonsblessingbox.com.

Contact Debbi Elmore at debbi.elmore2017@gmail.com.

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