Local resident Blair Miller recently founded Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, an initiative that allows the Princeton community to support struggling neighbors and participating businesses each time they order takeout, purchase books or toys, or shop at McCaffrey’s supermarket.
Through the program, patrons of local restaurants and retail shops can add an extra meal, book or toy to their phone or online order. These Neighbors’ Meals or items are then delivered to the newly opened Free Store/Tienda Gratis, located in Studio Hillier, 190 Witherspoon St., the next day.
Miller first teamed up with McCaffrey’s Food Market in Princeton Shopping Center to invite customers to add a “Neighbors’ Bag” to their purchase at checkout. Each pre-packaged brown bag — costing between $5 and $20 — includes personal hygiene, baby items, cleaning products, and other necessary goods, which are left in a bin for Miller to retrieve each morning, according to a prepared statement.
“It’s a win-win-win. Our food insecure neighbors will receive a warm meal and other necessities, our local businesses fighting to survive the adverse impacts of COVID-19 will see a bolster in sales, and our kind neighbors who want to help will have an avenue through which to do so,” Miller said in the statement.
Miller said the Free Store/Tienda Gratis was the brainchild of Ross Wishnick, founder of SHUPP (Send Hunger Packing Princeton) and head of operations at Mister Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project. Ross, Blair and Hillier’s staff worked together to open the store only two days after the inception of the idea.
A frequent volunteer at homeless shelters and other social service agencies, Miller noticed that some of these places temporarily closed as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. She grew concerned that their clients would not have enough to eat, according to the statement.
“So, I started to make bagged lunches with a handwritten message of hope and personally delivered them to our food-insecure neighbors. While preparing these bags, I swiftly
realized the crisis extended to local businesses, too,” she said in the statement. “In a time of isolation and hardship, my goal is to connect our neighbors in need, our neighbors who want to help, and our neighboring businesses so we can strengthen our community together.”
Two weeks later, Miller reached out to McCaffrey’s to get the Neighbors’ Bags initiative started. Wishnick’s store concept created a solution to the distribution of the bags.
McCaffrey’s started selling Neighbors’ Bags on April 13. To date, more than 2100 Neighbors’ Bags, containing necessities worth well over $10,000, have been made available to those in need through Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, according to the statement.
On opening day for the Free Store, April 20, an entire supply of 700 Neighbors’ Bags as well as three boxes of Neighbors’ Meals were depleted in an hour-and-a-half.
Local Greek restaurant, at its Small Bites location on Nassau Street, sold more than 40 extra meals within its first two days of participation
On average, 85 neighbors line up around the block each day to take advantage of the Free Store’s offerings, according to the statement.
Miller praised local businessman Bob Hillier and his team for opening his architectural studio to the community. The Free Store is open to the public from noon to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Neighbors must wear masks and line up observing social distancing rules while waiting for store volunteers to assist them. Each neighbor is allowed up to two bags from any category plus two Neighbors’ Meals per household.
For those who are sick or immobile, volunteers will make deliveries. To request a delivery, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miller’s goal is expand the initiative to help local businesses transition into life after COVID-19. She aims to help the “Neighbors’ Businesses” get new staff through Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project’s customer base, so local businesses and residents can continue to thrive, according to the statement.
Some of the participating vendors include Tortugas, The Bent Spoon, Jammin’ Crepes, Small World, JaZams, Sprouts, Labyrinth Books, La Mezzaluna, Local Greek, D’angelo, Milk & Cookies, PJ’s Pancake House, Nomad Pizza, Trattoria Procaccini and Princeton Soup & Sandwich.
Donations can be made on GoFundMe to Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project.
For more information, visit www.mrrogersneighbors.com.