words: Marla Cantrell
Images: courtesy Destiny Potter and Barbie Johnson
Two women who haven’t met—Destiny Potter in Van Buren, Arkansas, and Barbie Johnson in Fort Smith—are fighting hunger in a small but mighty way. Both believe they were called to help their neighbors, and both owe their calling to another woman who lives a little over an hour away.
That woman is Jessica McClard, who started the first Little Free Pantry in Fayetteville. She got the idea from the Little Free Libraries that were showing up in the area, small wooden boxes with Plexiglas doors, typically sitting atop a post, filled with books donated by people in the community. The message was simple: Take a book if you want; leave a book if you like. When Jessica looked at the libraries, she wondered what would happen if instead of books, the boxes were filled with food for anyone who needed it.
Both Destiny and Barbie followed Jessica’s story online. As they read what she was doing, they were determined to do the same, and each had her own reason.
For Destiny, the pull came from a childhood of need. “My mother,” Destiny says, “was heavily addicted to drugs (she’s since overcome her addiction), and my father worked multiple jobs for very little pay just trying to make ends meet.”
Destiny was a little girl who struggled through nights of too little food. After school, she’d often head to a neighbor’s house, the smell of supper cooking too much to resist. She felt like an intruder every time, inviting herself in, but she did it anyway, and that caused shame to well up inside her. In November of each year, she’d go with her family to a big church near their home in Northwest Arkansas, where she sat through a two-hour service in order to come home with the makings for Thanksgiving dinner.
Even now, when Destiny recalls those times, she’s thankful for the pantries, for the churches, for everyone who helped. Still, needing help took its toll. “There were food pantries where you could only go once a month, so we’d find four in the area and go once a week to a different one to have enough,” Destiny says. “The saddest part was seeing these beautiful women in their beautiful clothing telling me it was going to be okay. Even at ten, I knew they didn’t have a clue about what my life was like. I thought it was fake then, but now I know it wasn’t.”
When she heard about the Little Free Pantry, her heart opened. Now married with two sons, she doesn’t lack for anything. She has a job she loves with the Van Buren School System. She can go to the market anytime she wants and buys anything she needs. Her children have never gone to bed hungry.
Destiny asked her father and grandfather to build her Van Buren Little Free Pantry that she set up beside her house in August. In her neighborhood, there are apartments for the elderly, along with houses where lower-income families live.
Once her pantry was finished, Destiny stocked it, spending eighty dollars to do so. She put a sign beside the pantry, letting passersby know that they could take whatever they needed, henever they needed it. Now, she fills the pantry three times a day, and others stop by intermitently to do the same. And while she still spends approximately one hundred dollars a month, others donate through her Paypal account. (Full meals seem to be greatly needed: pasta and sauce, Hamburger Helper and canned vegetables, cereal, and oatmeal.) Sunday is the best day, with families bringing their kids with them, teaching them the importance of giving.
What she loves is that nobody has to know who’s getting the food. And while she’s a Christian, she makes sure no one leaves religious pamphlets inside the pantry, and she doesn’t go outside and pray with anyone. “I’m a believer. I have deep faith. But I think that my Little Free Pantry glows Jesus without saying a word.”
Sometimes, sitting inside her house, Destiny has seen her elderly neighbors, walking with canes, use the pantry. She’s seen the kids in her neighborhood open the door with delight. She’s met a man who was a regular recipient who now, since he’s gotten a raise at work, has become a regular donor. Those in the community who do extreme couponing, bring items to her.
Since opening her Pantry, a few others have been built in Van Buren. That fact delights Destiny, who believes giving freely is one of the best feelings in the world.
Barbie Johnson, life coach, author, inspirational speaker, and Realtor for Sagely and Edwards, agrees. In March of this year, while reeling from the effects of Empty Nest Syndrome, she decided it was time to do something about it. “There’s joy in giving,” Barbie says. “It gets us out of ourselves.”
She had been watching the success of Jessica, in Fayetteville, and later, Destiny, in Van Buren. Barbie thought about the years when her son and daughter were little, and how they’d gone to Fort
Smith’s Creekmore Park because it didn’t cost a dime to do so. “In thirty-one years of marriage, I’ve experienced times of plenty and not-plenty. I remember gathering pennies to buy things,” Barbie says. Because of her connection to Creekmore, she thought the park was the perfect spot.
A carpenter friend built the shingled wooden box, that’s thirty-one inches high and twenty-one inches wide. They painted it Razorback red and attached it to a post and put it near the entrance, close to the swimming pool. On a Sunday in September, after getting the blessing of Fort Smith’s Parks Department, the pantry opened. Barbie bought applesauce, pudding, juice boxes, baby food, diapers and wipes, pasta and sauce. The Community Pantry, which has already garnered the nickname Little Red Box, quickly emptied. When she decided to do this, she realized it would take a commitment of time and money. “I just thought I’d sell more houses if I needed to,” she says and smiles. “But I also believed the community would get involved.”
That’s exactly what happened. Since the pantry empties so quickly, donors are bringing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with non-perishables. A man who stays home to care for his son who has a progressive illness comes by three times a day to make sure the pantry is filled. At a recent Realtors’ lunch, those in Barbie’s profession brought food to donate. At times, she’s seen people at the park who don’t seem to have any extra money, but they’re armed with items to donate. Even the workers at Dollar General, beside Creekmore, where Barbie often shops, have gotten excited about what’s going on. “I had one of the checkers tell me she was going to see about getting us a discount. That’s the generosity of people.” There was also a young boy whose wish for his sixth birthday was to fill the pantry, which he was able to do.
Already, there are plans for three more Community Pantries in Fort Smith. Barbie has friends and colleagues who want to help, and she’s excited to see what happens. One of the best things about this system is that anyone can do it. You can stop by and stock the shelves with whatever you like. “It’s pure giving because you never know the recipient. You don’t get a pat on the back. What you do get is pure joy,” Barbie says.
Both Barbie and Destiny are busy planning for the holidays. Destiny is taking donations for a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at her home in Van Buren. Barbie is looking to stock the Community Pantry with socks, gloves, blankets, even small gifts parents could give their children. And eventually, they want to meet in person, since they’re on the same mission.
Barbie sums up giving beautifully, looking to God’s example, to His overflowing kindness. We should give the same way, she says. Freely and without conditions. And then she smiles again, happy to have this opportunity, and grateful for the generosity she’s seen in this community she loves so much.
For information on how to start a Little Free Pantry, visit littlefreepantry.org.
Van Buren’s Little Free Pantry
522 South 7th Street
Find the Van Buren Little Free Pantry on Facebook, or at paypal.me/littlefreepantry.
Creekmore Park in Fort Smith
Stop by to donate items, or contact Barbie at fscommunitypantry.org.
Find the Fort Smith Community Pantry on Facebook by searching The Little Red Box AKA The Community Pantry.