Shrek may seem like an unlikely pandemic hero, but in one South Philadelphia neighborhood, the ogre holds special meaning. To understand why, you have to go to Bella Vista and look for a chartreuse newspaper box that says From Our Swamp to Yours.
Taped to the cabinet’s front window, the instructions “Leave a Shrek, take a Shrek” have inspired people to leave Shrek-themed curios that fans of the film can grab for free, such as waffle mix for Shrek’s breakfast-loving best friend, Donkey; original artwork featuring the cartoon ogre; and onions, which the titular character says have layers, just like ogres. Wil Keiper, along with his friend Lauren Devlin, started the Shrek Box as a way to repurpose one of the city’s dilapidated newspaper boxes, which were filling up with trash. Rather than create a box that supported the community in more tangible ways, like the community fridges he noticed popping up during the pandemic, Keiper intended for the Shrek Box to serve as a means for people to connect while still adhering to social distancing. “People had to get really creative on how to have fun during the pandemic,” he told me in an email. “And being able to make something for the box probably helped direct people's imaginations in a new direction.”
Over the past year and a half, remixed versions of Little Free Libraries—a book-exchange network first established in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009—have developed out of a desire to connect with neighbors and offer community support during the pandemic. The Little Free Library organization itself has even created a global map of the boxes that have pivoted to distributing food as well as personal-care and household items. Stephanie Hankerson, who teaches gardening in St. Paul, Minnesota, established Little Free Florist, which offers seeds and plants indigenous to the region. And the Houston real-estate agent Cheryl McCleary co-founded the Pup Stop, a cupboard with free dog treats, for people walking their dogs throughout the day. More established exchange boxes, such as Free Blockbuster, where neighbors give and take DVDs and VHS tapes, saw wider adoption and grew to 60 “franchises” nationwide this summer.
The boxes have become epicenters of community during an intensely isolating historical moment, allowing people to connect through shared interests without needing to occupy the same space at the same time. And the camaraderie amounts to more than just niceties; it can actually benefit one’s mental health. A recent U.K. study examining the effects of community volunteering during the pandemic concluded that community aid promoted unity, increased well-being, and reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. “Neighborly giving has the power to draw people—many of whom feel isolated and disenfranchised—toward each other in the most welcoming of ways,” the clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly told me over email. “Our mental health naturally improves when we feel safe, seen, and welcomed in our communities.” What drives Hankerson, for instance, is the value of giving for giving’s sake. “I know flowers don't seem like it,” she said to me on the phone, “but for someone who’s having a bad mental-health day, it could be aid.”
Community spirit may not always seem compatible with the American ethos of individualism. But these boxes demonstrate that many are willing to give freely of their time and talent to other people. Local artists often donate their work to Phoenix’s Free Little Art Gallery, Clare Wright, the artist who started the box, told me over the phone. The speed at which new art cycles through the display case is proof of the concept’s value in her community. “People have realized that spending their money on trivial things that are mass-produced in a factory is really not as meaningful as getting something somebody made with their hands and put their love and time into.” And although donors hardly ever meet those who adopt their offerings, as items flow in and out of the cabinets, the people who maintain and frequent them can see the community at work. Even if you didn’t see someone take a tiny painting, its disappearance offers proof that a satisfied collector exists.
Because they lack the utility of other local mutual-aid options, such as community fridges, Little Free Pantries, and Buy Nothing groups, the Shrek Box and similar sites may seem overly whimsical. But the driving force is the same: During a time of great turmoil, people are seeking community and donating their time and resources. Boxes that exist for the purpose of spreading no-strings-attached joy are a worthy antidote to the ails of pandemic life.