After three decades of work in the Federal Government, Colleen Osborne decided it was time for a change. However, as she was planning to start a new business, the pandemic hit. She contracted the virus and spent a month in her bedroom self-isolating. Colleen remembered it as a quiet time with space to connect with those tugs in her heart strings. She started attending some of the live calls
hosted by ServiceSpace and, a bit later on, participated in the Laddership Pod
When Colleen came out of self-isolation, she saw there was so much suffering everywhere. With a deep desire to help, and, inspired by the blessing box in a church yard, she started the Little Free Pantry in her front yard. Initially, she was worried about what her neighbors might think and whether she can do that on her own, but somehow the suffering she witnessed during the pandemic cracked her heart open, and she shed those layers of being reserved and worried about what people would think. She decided to just focus on what she could do at that moment to make a little difference in the world. “One of the challenges is not letting the mind lead, but letting the heart lead,” Colleen says.
In May of 2022, with the help of her family, Colleen found a folding table from her basement and placed it in front of her house in Denver, Colorado. Next, she brought food out of her pantry, put out an umbrella to keep the food a little bit shaded and protected, and made a sign that read “Little Free Pantry”. At first, it was really slow, as there were more people donating than there were people taking things. Colleen tried to get the word out by writing letters to churches and her city. There were rainy days and days when she and her husband, Hugh, had to run out and pick up the umbrella or food that was blown over, but they persevered.
Colleen Osborne’s Little Free Pantry when it first started in May 2022
Even though it took a long time for people who could benefit from the pantry to know it was there, the pantry became a lot busier after it showed up on Google maps. Neighbors and, more often, strangers have brought donations. As time went by, Hugh built a more permanent and sturdy installation of the pantry by following instructions from the littlefreepantry.org website. Colleen has been surprised at how much the Little Free Pantry has influenced the community and wants to continue to spread the ripples.
Many grateful people have shown their appreciation of the pantry in their own unique way, and all have moved Colleen as she was not expecting them. One woman had been living in her car with her cat when she found the Little Free Pantry. By the time she knocked on Colleen’s door, she had gotten back on her feet with a job at a doggy daycare and wanted to thank Colleen in person and let her know that she is doing ok. This brief encounter left Colleen speechless and deeply touched. She realized then that the pantry was making a difference.
Colleen and her Little Free Pantry have also inspired other people to make a difference. One time, they ran into a gentleman who was about to leave a note for them in the pantry box. The note said: “I was driving by and I’ve seen your little free pantry. I thank you very much for the help, because in somehow or some way we are all having a struggle. You are amazing. I also took a book because my son is eight years old and he can read now. So if it’s okay, I may bring some books he’s read. I don’t live close, but when I do come I would love to bless others also. Thank you again – JT, God Bless.”
Another powerful incident occurred within the first couple months of the pantry. Colleen received a $20 check in the mail from a Spanish-speaking person whom she did not know. Neither she nor her husband could cash the check because it wasn’t made out to them. Not wanting to shut down the person’s generosity by sending it back, she wrote a letter in Spanish, explaining that she couldn’t cash the check but if they wanted to send another one, here’s how they should make out the check, or they could just pay it forward. A week or so passed and she got another check in the mail from the same person. This time, it was for $40, doubling the initial amount. In an agendaless space of offering, generosity just blossomed for the greater good. “That helped me learn this lesson: Never get in the way of somebody else’s generosity.” says Colleen.
What started out as her need to give back and make a difference blossomed into a community effort. About a year after the project started, a young man walking his dog said to Colleen and Hugh as he went past, “Your little free pantry is the best thing in our community”. His words had a powerful effect on Colleen. “It wasn’t just ours anymore,” she realized. “It was affecting people who weren’t even necessarily putting food in or taking food out. But it was affecting people who walked their dogs.”
Colleen’s love of serving others was influenced by her parents. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, her family was involved in a lot of community efforts, mostly through church. Also, she remembers her dad always stopping when he sees cars broken down on the side of the road. “He’s a good mechanic, so he is always helping people,” Colleen says. “Those kinds of things infused my being.” Today Colleen’s father has also adopted the Little Free Pantry. “We all had to shed layers of being worried about what people are going to think. We’ve grown together in doing it,” Colleen reflects. “Everyone has become more open-hearted, generous, and more aware of the impact that one person can have in the community.”
To Colleen, her work is not just about feeding people. “It’s about growing community, the sense that we are in it together. We can care for each other in beautiful ways,” she says. It fills her up to see others getting involved in creating little upward spirals of goodness. She thinks that every person can be the leader of global change. ”Look for simple things that you can do in your everyday lives, and not think that the solutions have to be from the top down.” Colleen advises. “Think about ‘what can I do that’s within three feet of me?’ Look for those every day opportunities to do something for someone.”
A more permanent installation of the Little Free Pantry built by Colleen’s husband, Hugh
Lately, when Colleen and her family walk outside to check the pantry box in the morning, it’s empty. The need for the pantry appears to be growing. “We have no plans to stop. This is something we’re just going to keep going.” On the pantry door, there is a sign that says “also visit the free community fridge” to help direct people to other resources close by. With the belief that “love feeds people,” Colleen wants to engage with people a little more, connecting them with other resources that are available, as she continues to serve people through her Little Free Pantry.