Blair Miller’s first instinct was to help.
The COVID-19 pandemic had taken its toll on Miller. The Princeton resident had lost her job at the Princeton University Art Museum. Her start-up business lost all the traction it had gained in recent months. She worried about her ability to pay bills and feed her dog. It was a stretch she calls “a really depressing time in my life.”
But she did not turn inward. Instead, she thought back to her volunteer work at local homeless shelters, to the struggles her own brother had with homelessness. She knew the power acts of kindness could have on people down on their luck.
Miller had nothing but free time and a burning desire to help, and she knew that, somehow, she needed to assist people in her hometown. She started making sandwiches—dozens of them—enough to feed 100 people. She delivered them to affordable housing developments throughout Princeton, paying for the supplies out of her own pocket. She called the packages “Neighbors Bags,” inspired by the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Eventually, the realities of her own situation started to catch up with her, and Miller couldn’t afford to keep going.
So, she started a crowdfunding campaign through GoFundMe. When this had success, she brainstormed ways to expand her work further in an effort she named Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project. She realized she could partner with local businesses, and allow people to add items to their purchases, with the extras being donated to Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project.
Since then, Miller’s initiative has provided thousands of dollars of goods and food to Princeton residents in need. It now offers three services—Neighbors Bags, Neighbors Meals and Neighbors Gifts—available three days a week at its Free Store on Witherspoon Street and via scheduled delivery.
There has been a tremendous demand for Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project’s services, particularly at the Free Store. On average, more than 85 people line up around the block for a chance to grab a free hot meal and some supplies at the store’s location at Mount Pisgah AME Church. (The store recently relocated from down the street, at Studio Hillier.)
Donated items go quickly; 60 pints of The Bent Spoon ice cream were claimed within a half hour May 18. On the Free Store’s opening day April 20, an entire supply of 700 Neighbors Bags and three boxes of Neighbors Meals were depleted in 90 minutes.
In the first three weeks of the project alone, more than $10,000 worth of products had been made available to—and accepted by—those in need.
The response has not surprised Miller.
“I’ve been reading a lot, and I know how bad it is out there,” Miller said. “I was anticipating the need, but I would think that most people would be surprised. I know some of the volunteers on the first day they were like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize.’ In such an affluent town, where there’s such a disparity in income, we can have so much wealth and all these beautiful houses, but then there are people who have nothing, blocks away. You know, it’s kind of jarring. I guess every town has that, but it’s a little bit more obvious right now.”
There has been so much need in the community that Miller has had to turn some people away to ensure everyone gets access to goods. The Free Store is open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon until 2 p.m., but each patron can only shop on two of those days. Miller and her team of volunteers take names to help monitor who is using the service, and she said 60% of the people are repeat customers. At least 70% speak Spanish as a first language, and Princeton Township Department of Human Services director Melissa Urias has volunteered to help translate for them.
In addition to Princeton Human Services, Miller has received valuable assistance from Send Hunger Packing Princeton. Ross Wishnick, founder of SHUPP, even came up with the idea of a Free Store.
At the Free Store, each person gets two bags of products, a warm meal provided by a local restaurant and a dry meal. Product bags come in categories such as personal hygiene, feminine hygiene and baby products.
Now, 19 Princeton businesses participate in the program. Some of them, like McCaffrey’s, Whole Earth Center and Sante Pharmacy, take donations for Neighbors Bags. Restaurants, such as Nomad Pizza, have joined with a buy-one, donate-one program. Small Bites by Local Greek on Nassau Street sold more than 40 extra meals within its first two days of participation. Nearly every business has seen an increase in sales since joining the initiative, Miller said.
Local shops like jaZams, Labyrinth Books, Highbar Boutique and Sprouts Flowers have become part of the newest addition to Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project, Neighbors Gifts. Inspired by her and her father’s birthdays last month, Miller added the option so people can pay for a gift to be given to someone who can’t afford one. She said gifts can either be placed up-for-grabs at the Free Store, or they can be delivered directly to a recommended person. Either way, the idea is to brighten someone’s day.
“It’s kind of sad, you know, driving by and honking a horn for someone’s birthday,” Miller said. “I can’t have a cake with [my family], I couldn’t get a hug. It’s a sad time to have a birthday.”
Miller said the program could also be used to give a gift to a recent graduate.
This kind of adaptive business thinking has been one of the biggest takeaways of the project for Miller. She calls herself “a thinker,” and said she has a notebook filled with ideas on how to apply the lessons learned from running Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project to her professional life.
“People want to feel a certain way when they participate in something,” Miller said. “I think the reason this is so successful, or I’ve had so much success with this, is because the community wants to help. And it makes them feel empowered to help, makes them feel important, and makes them feel validated in a time when people have no control over their lives, over their business, over their job, over what they’re doing, their kids are doing. This makes them feel a certain way about themselves. It’s tapping in to how the consumer feels.”
Miller hopes the insight can help her further develop her company, ConductAction, which attempts to link activism to classical music. Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project generates no income for her, and Miller still has worries about her own employment situation, the bills that continue to come in and the needs of her puppy. For now, though, her primary focus remains on the people she’s helping.
Miller grew up outside of Philadelphia. She moved to Princeton to attend Westminster Choir College, where she studied piano performance. She also worked in Palmer Square, at Ralph Lauren, for 10 years. It was during this time she fell in love with downtown Princeton, and came to know the owners of local shops.
She said the last three months have strengthened her relationship with the local business community. It also has allowed her to meet a lot of local people who are out of a job. As Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project evolves, she hopes she might be able to connect the two, helping people find work and business owners find employees. Miller knows Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project in its current form most likely will only exist as long as pandemic-related restrictions on businesses do.
“I’m not really sure how long it’s gonna go on,” Miller said. “But this idea of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project can be started up at any time, whether it’s homelessness or if there’s any kind of catastrophic event. It’s a really good model that can help a lot of people.”
For more information, including a list of participating businesses, go online to mrrogersneighbors.com.