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The blessing box: The Least of These closing, looking for someone to take over homeless aid box

From left: Suzanne Barbknecht, Gretchen Thompson and Jenn Anderson go through items for the "blessing box" put out behind The Least of These boutique in downtown Bemidji. The three, along with Jennifer Kovach, manage supplies for the box, which offers items like gloves, hats, granola bars and more to homeless community members. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
The "blessing box" is placed behind The Least of These boutique, which is located at 108 Third St. NW, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI—Shortly after the gift shop The Least of These moved to its downtown Bemidji location last year, the weather turned cold, and manager Jenn Anderson noticed signs someone was sleeping behind the building.

"It just seemed like things were moved around back there, and there were boxes that were flattened, and then one day we came back and realized for sure that someone was sleeping back there," Anderson said.

"It really broke our hearts, because it was so cold out."

Anderson and other colleagues quickly acted to address the issue. Because The Least of These is an arm of the nonprofit ministry Hands of Action International, the boutique's employees were well-equipped to help those in need.

As Bemidji temperatures plummeted, the store's employees decided to create what they call a "blessing box" to help the people sleeping on the loading dock stay warm. Anderson posted on Facebook asking for donations of blankets, socks, hats, mittens and easy-to-eat food, which she then packed into a plastic tote to leave behind the building.

"We had a huge, a tremendous outpouring from the community, where people started to bring in all those items," Anderson said. "Since then, it's been used every day."

Since the box came to be about a year ago, Anderson and other workers at the store have gotten to know the homeless community members using the box. The Least of These has become their first stop in mornings after leaving local shelters, Anderson said, and they often depend on the food left in the box for breakfast.

"We've been really blessed, because the people who are using the blessing box have actually come in many times to thank us for it," she said. "We've gotten to know a lot of the men and women who are using the box back there."

Anderson said there are five "regulars" who stop by the box every day, though sometimes more people come by. On average, she said, between five and eight people make use of the donations daily.

Sometimes, though, the shop has a hard time keeping the box full. The ministry doesn't have a specific fund for homeless outreach, as its mission is to help children in Uganda.

Anderson said that, when The Least of These opened three years ago, Hands of Action International hoped to use its profits to pay for a school in Uganda and help sponsor children there. But the store hasn't turned enough of a profit to hire a manager or pay for the ministry's other work, and will close Jan. 13.

"You get back to the basics and you realize you're working so hard, you know, 40 to 60 hours a week to keep this awesome, beautiful, amazing store running, but it's not producing any benefits for our ministry," Anderson said. "We just realized that there needed to be change."

Once the store closes, Hands of Action will move to an office at another location. Anderson said the ministry's new location doesn't allow for the blessing box to come with.

Anderson is currently looking for a downtown business to take over the box.

"We just don't want to see this need go unmet," Anderson said. "We really are hoping that somebody will see this and decide that it's something they can take on."

To donate to the blessing box, bring items to The Least of These, located in downtown Bemidji.

Cold-weather shelter open for the season:

Bemidji’s cold-weather shelter opened for the season Oct. 1 and will remain open through April 30.

The Wolfe Center, located at the corner of Sixth Street and America Avenue Northwest, is open every night from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. The shelter can accommodate 16 people and includes two bathrooms, a laundry facility and a space for guests to lock up alcohol.

The shelter is open to chronic inebriates and has a separate area with two beds for women to sleep.  

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796