Seeing opportunities during challenging times is characteristic of a good entrepreneur. When UTS Startup community members Michelle and Maureen saw a need for basic essentials in Newtown during the COVID-19 pandemic, they flexed those skills – and started a movement.

“Address things you can control. Mitigate risk. Focus on productive, positive and wholesome things to keep the creation momentum going,” says Maureen Lee. 

Maureen, fellow UTS Startups community member Michelle Gomes and housemate Joyce Akinpe witnessed first-hand the effect of things they can’t control as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: friends losing jobs, the plight of international students and their neighbouring (and usually bustling) Asylum Seeker Centre transitioning to on-call attendance.

And so, they created the Newtown Blessing Box.

The birth of the Blessing Box

The first step was go “curbside shopping” for a suitable cupboard to make into a street pantry. 

The cupboard came from a back lane in Camperdown. It whispered to us that its name used to be Camperdown Closet, and that it was happy to pivot in these challenging times and be of service to the community.

Maureen Lee

“A few hours later with the help of Uncle Tony (Michelle’s dad) and his handyman skills, the Newtown Blessing Box was born with what we had in our pantry: a few tins of beans, Weetbix and crackers.” 

“Along with some dodgy handwritten signage on gaffa tape,” she added, “that says ‘Leave what you can, take what you need’.”

“The cupboard’s now living its authentic truth as the gender-neutral Newtown Blessing Box on the corner of Bedford and Station Streets.”

Blessings for everyone

The word spread quickly that a street pantry had been created thanks to foot traffic from locals, welcoming and thoughtful visual merchandise, and shout outs from local influencers. In its first week of life, it had over 70 visitors a day.

“In what was initially intended to create a street pantry for the asylum seekers, we now clearly see that the whole community is also in need of it,” said Maureen.

Between sanitising the box and its contents multiple times a day, the team have witnessed first-hand why people get involved. “Some people just stare at what others have placed in the box and feel a sense of awe and collectivism, that their community cares,” says Maureen. “They start to think about the needs of others, and how grateful they are to be in a position of relative privilege.”

Create, listen, pivot

Maureen and Michelle are both members of the UTS Startups community; Maureen is studying a Bachelor of Business and Michelle is an alumna of the Juris Doctor. Besides being the world’s best neighbours, they’re are co-founders of Orenda Oracle, a startup (still in incubation) that turns any filmed footage into market-ready video assets within seconds. They see problems as opportunities and do their bit to solve it. 

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in these times of change, and isolation. We’re all faced with different and real challenges as a result of COVID-19 that are outside of our control. But with an entrepreneurial mindset like Michelle’s and Maureen’s, there are still many ways you can pivot to connect with the community and support each other. 

You may need to take something from the Newtown Blessing Box today, but next time you might be giving back. 

The Newtown Blessing Box has its own (ever-growing) Instagram page and Facebook group where daily updates and progress are published. Ask them advice on creating a community pantry in your neighbourhood!

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