April 29, 2020

Mr. Rogers’ Project Is a “Win-Win-Win,” Connecting Neighbors and Businesses

CONNECTING NEIGHBORS: Blair Miller, founder of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, prepares to distribute bags of food and other necessities at the Free Store/Tienda Gratis, also known as Studio Hillier, on Witherspoon Street. More than 1,500 “neighbors bags” have been made available in this project for neighbors in need, local businesses, and community members looking to help.

By Donald Gilpin

The computer screens are dark on the desks at Studio Hillier, 190 Witherspoon Street, with the office closed during the coronavirus crisis and the architects, designers, and urban planners working remotely.

But on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Studio Hillier is transformed into the Free Store/Tienda Gratis, open for business with hundreds of bags of food and other supplies covering the long drafting tables, and volunteers running back and forth preparing to meet the needs of about 80 local residents lined up six feet apart in the courtyard outside.

In its third week of operation, the Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, founded by local volunteer Blair Miller, 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 market.

The program encourages patrons of local stores and restaurants to add an extra meal, book, or toy to their phone or online orders. These items are then delivered to the Free Store/Tienda Gratis for distribution on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from noon to 2 p.m.

“It’s a win-win-win,” said Miller. “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 boost in sales, and our kind neighbors who want to help will have an avenue through which to do so.”

The response so far has been “an amazing community effort,” she says. “It really connects the community in a wonderful way.” She describes people coming up to her in the aisles of McCaffrey’s asking how they can get involved, and people helping her unload groceries in the parking lot wanting to join in as volunteers and contributors. “Community members have been showing an overwhelming amount of support, which has really been heartwarming,” she says.

Miller, a longtime volunteer at homeless shelters and other social service agencies, suddenly saw some of those places close as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. She grew concerned that their clients would not have enough to eat. Miller is a pianist and the founder and CEO of ConductAction, a company focused on advocacy of classical music. She realized she had some time on her hands after being laid off from her work at the Princeton University Art Museum.

“So I started to make bagged lunches with a handwritten message of hope and I personally delivered them to our food-insecure neighbors,” she said. “While preparing these bags, I realized the crisis extended to local businesses, too. 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.”

Miller decided to team up with McCaffrey’s to invite customers to add a “neighbors’ bag” to their purchase at checkout. Each pre-packaged brown bag, costing between $5 and $20, was left in a bin for Miller to retrieve each morning.

The scope of the project grew quickly — more than 700 bags sold at McCaffrey’s in the first week — and Miller’s vision grew too. “I wanted to get food to people and I wanted to do it quickly. I wondered, ‘How can I get food and other items to those in need and at the same time support local businesses?’” That’s when she reached out to Ross Wishnick, founder of Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPPrinceton) and chair of Princeton Human Services.

On Friday, April 10 they talked on the phone, Wishnick recalled. “I said, ‘The Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Project is great, and I support it 100 percent, and I have an idea. Let’s open up the Mr. Rogers’ Project Free Store. We’ll keep your goods there and distribute them.’ She said, ‘Where?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’”

Wishnick decided to call Studio Hillier principal Bob Hillier, a Town Topics shareholder, and ask if Hillier could find them a place to park and distribute their goods in the Witherspoon neighborhood. Hillier Operations Manager Oliver Pelosi answered the phone. He loved the idea. Hillier loved the idea. And within an hour, Miller and Wishnick had their Free Store/Tienda Gratis location at Studio Hillier’s main office with its welcoming courtyard and big garage door entrance.

Three days later they were in operation, with Pelosi, designer Dustin Bailey, property manager Jerry Prete, and other Hillier employees lending a hand. Kindly Creative graphic designer Onolee Oberrender designed the Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project logo and the signs that have been placed around town.

“Blair has a really good idea,” Wishnick said. “The concept is buy one, buy one. Buy one for yourself. Buy one for the Free Store. You’re supporting your favorite store and you’re supporting an anonymous person. We have a web of caring people who are interrelating to be supportive of the community.”

Miller added, “The whole point and premise is to get people to feel connected as neighbors. I really want a neighbor to feel that when they sit down to have a warm meal made by a local restaurant or when they’re using these products and opening these bags, they really feel connected even though they’re in isolation.”

For those who are sick or immobile, volunteers will make deliveries. To request a delivery, email blair@mrrogersneighbors.com.

So far, participating Neighbors’ Businesses, where you can add on something extra for a neighbor in need, include The Bent Spoon, Jammin’ Crepes, jaZams, Labyrinth Books, Local Greek, Milk & Cookies, Nomad Pizza, Princeton Soup & Sandwich, Tortugas, Small World, Sprouts, and Tiger Noodles. Or you can buy a neighbors’ bag at McCaffrey’s or donate directly to Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project on GoFundMe. For more information, visit www.mrrogersneighbors.com.

Local Greek sold more than 40 extra meals within its first two days of participation. “Blair Miller has a vision,” said Wishnick.