Patrick Callahan doesn’t know exactly where the image originated.
It was a Facebook post about a community overseas that had set up a refrigerator on the side of a street to provide the homeless with leftovers offered by the local community.
“I think it was in India, but I really can’t be sure,” said Callahan, adding quickly that the exact location wasn’t and isn’t really important. What is important is the concept and the proactive, imaginative response to the needs of the homeless.
And what’s more important still is the way it inspired him to not only ask what could be done in this region — a thought experiment, as he called it — but to help answer that question.
“I thought to myself, we should be doing something like that refrigerator,” said Callahan, a member of the emerging third generation involved with Palmer Paving Corp., who approached the principals there, including his aunt, Jan, about leveraging the company’s many relationships within the communities it serves and building upon its long history of giving back to address obvious needs.
That ‘something’ is an emerging and intriguing story called Nicebox, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit created in 2016 to address the many needs of the homeless.
One of the original ideas — and it is still being talked about on many levels — was to install solar-powered vending machines in strategic locations that would, in exchange for a certain amount of recyclables, dispense a Nicebox, a pack filled with items the homeless can use. While discussions on machines continued, talk also focused on exactly what should go into these packs, said Pat Callahan, adding that, eventually, it was determined that several different kinds of packs are needed, including those filled with food, hygiene items, and healthcare needs.
And the newly created nonprofit set about creating some of these packs, starting with the one that has come to be called the Tidypack. It contains a host of hygiene products, including soap, shampoo, conditioner, a razor and shaving cream, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and more.
Working with the Friends of the Homeless, part of Clinical & Support Options (CSO), Nicebox has distributed more than 3,000 of these packs to date, said Pat Callahan, adding that the boxes are catching on, and so is that name, Tidypack, thanks to a true partnership with Friends of the Homeless.
“We’ve been working in close concert with them,” she explained. “Originally, we had an idea for the Tidypack — let’s give them these products. But then we took a step back and said, ‘let’s go in and see what they really need.’ So we sat down with the team at Friends of the Homeless and determined what they really needed.”
The packs can last an individual a week or more, said Jan, adding that the cost of filling one — thanks to wholesale purchases and discounts given to nonprofits — is roughly the same as that for a gourmet coffee, and this is the message Nicebox is spreading as it goes about enlisting support for its efforts.
“To help someone stay clean for a week only costs $2.50,” she noted. “When you think of an individual who’s struggling, you can help them for the same as it would cost to buy to a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Pat Callahan and his aunt, Jan, say customers and partners of Palmer Paving have supported Nicebox early on, and they want to see that support expand outward.
And the nonprofit has secured quite a bit of help, she went on, noting that while Nicebox does some fundraising — she recently conducted an appeal on Facebook — it has thus far mostly relied on the support of customers, vendors, and other partners of Palmer Paving.
“With the reach that Palmer Paving has, we’ve been sending out sort of ad hoc requests for donations within our group of friends and company friends, and they’ve been supportive of this,” she told BusinessWest.
And support is needed as the nonprofit looks to not only expand the presence of the Tidypack, but also move forward with another type of assistance package — the Healthpack.
Indeed, Nicebox is collaborating with Mercy Medical Center, which already has a strong track record for work with the homeless in and around Springfield, to introduce the packs this summer.
They will include such items as a clean pair of socks, Band-Aids, ointment, a sewing kit, and other items, said Pat Callahan, and will be distributed by the medical center to those who, for whatever reason, will not come to a homeless shelter.
Moving forward, Pat and Jan noted that those involved with Nicebox have been working diligently over the past two years to track their progress and results, with the goal of using the accumulated data to apply for grants from foundations and other entities so the nonprofit doesn’t have to rely on donations and can expand its efforts geographically and through initiatives that might include a Nicebox on wheels that can distribute packs to a wider area.
Mercy Medical Center is part of the national Trinity Health system, noted Pat Callahan, adding that this affiliation may become a vehicle for taking the Healthpacks regional and perhaps national. Already, the nonprofit has become involved with some initatives in the Hartford area.
Meanwhile, Nicebox is also taking steps to increase its visibility through a number of initiatives, including booths at events like the upcoming Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival and others like it.
Overall, Nicebox is focused on putting its mission on a rock-solid foundation and continually building — those sound like phrases that would be heard at Palmer Paving — on a concept grounded in meeting need.
Like Patrick Callahan said, he’s not sure where that Facebook post of the refrigerator on the side of the road originated from. What matters is that he saw it, he was inspired by it, and he’s working with others to find similarly unique ways to help those who need some.
— George O’Brien