Collective kindness projects that re-tap our sense of human decency

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Anna Brech
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When Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond died this week, we were reminded how courteous his beloved character was; for all his clumsy ways.

“Paddington is very polite in a world where people have become more selfish,” the author once said. “It’s very much every man for himself now. People don’t make eye contact in London, even walking down the street.” 

The interviewer noted how Michael, one of Britain’s finest literary talents, “hates travelling on the Tube because no one ever offers their seat to him and tells me sadly that even the checkout assistants in his local supermarket don’t bother to look at him or speak”.

There is a general sense that we’ve somehow lost our moral compass in this frenetic 21st Century world; that we’ve forgotten how to connect to one another, or be empathetic when we’re so manically focused on progression and achievement.

And yet, a growing number of people are recognising that, in times like these – when leaders obsess over walls and propagate flagrant self-interest – we should be breaking down barriers and reaching out to one another more than ever.

One such project manifests itself in the so-called “kindness meters” that are starting to pop up across North America. 

These re-purposed coin-operated parking meters collect people’s shared change, which is then distributed to help those living in poverty.

The city of Vernon, south of Los Angeles in California, has raised $2,427 (£1,869) for social agencies since implementing a series of meters in the district last year. Money donated goes directly to services that feed and house the homeless community in the area.

The concept has seen success in a number of Canadian towns and cities, too.

Three bright-red meters installed in a busy downtown area of Truro, Nova Scotia, raised C$2,000 (£1,181) for local charities and community groups in the space of 12 months.

“These meters allow the public to support local groups in any amounts they choose, with no pressure, just gratitude,” said Quinn McCarthy, a member of the public who helped set up the initiative.

Local resident Lincoln McCardle campaigned for about two years to install five kindness meters in high-traffic areas of the city of London, Ontario. Money collected goes to in-house charity initiatives run by the Salvation Army, although one of the machines was recently stolen.

“I am hopeful that at least we can make a difference,” Lincoln says. “We just thought it was such a good idea.”

Kindness meters have yet to take off in the UK (hence the spelling), but one idea that has made it across the channel is that of the Little Free Pantry.

This grassroots concept was pioneered by Jessica McClard, a resident of Fayetteville city in North Carolina. 

Spotting local pop-up libraries in the area – boxes of books which people can take or leave for free - she decided to create her own pantry version, with items that might help people struggling to get by.

She says it’s the equivalent of giving a neighbour a cup of sugar.

“‘I think people respond to it because it’s about community and neighbourhood,” she says.

A typical collection features dry foods alongside “deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, diapers, feminine hygiene products, paper towels and toilet paper. I get asked about high temperatures and whether food could really spoil, but the turnover rate is so high it’s never been a problem.”

Since then, a string of Little Free Pantries have popped up across the US and here in the UK, where Lara Mackie was inspired to start the movement in Southend, Essex.

“You bring what you can and take what you need,” Lara says. “Anyone can get an unexpected bill and suddenly find themselves struggling. There’s no stigma; this is for everybody.”

Lara’s give-and-take larder features non-perishable food items alongside useful household products, such as washing up liquid and sanitary pads. With around 6.5% of the UK population (around 3.9 million people) living in persistent poverty, it’s certainly a worthy cause.

“I can’t tell you how many people use it but what I can tell you is that every time it fills up it empties,” Lara says.

Jessica, the US founder of Little Free Pantry enterprise, has charged Lara with spreading the word on the project here in Britain. And it’s working; so far there are three free pantries; two in Southend and one in Watford.

“Setting up your own Little Free Pantry is easy,” says Lara. “All you need to start with is a cupboard and a space to put it outside your property, just make sure you have permission first… you can make your pantry as basic or as flamboyant as you wish, the sky's the limit!”

Find out more on the Little Free Pantry UK Facebook page.

Images: Facebook and Twitter


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.