Before it developed into a trademark program throughout Kansas, Paxton’s Blessing Box started with a $38 trip to Dollar Tree in Wichita.

That’s how much money Maggie Ballard and her son, Paxton Burns, needed to fill a crimson box in front of their house with prepackaged food products in October 2016. A sign on the front of the box read: “Take a blessing when you need one. Leave a blessing when you can.”

So many people donated food to the box that Ballard and Burns didn’t spend another dollar.

Those crimson boxes have become popular in Kansas with 75 locations, allowing those in need to grab food whenever they want while others replenish the boxes with donations. The boxes have become crucial during the coronavirus pandemic, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing and children not receiving meals at school.

For his efforts, Burns, 10, received a humanitarian award last weekend from HumanKind Ministries, a nonprofit that provides resources to people experiencing homelessness or poverty in Sedgwick County, Kansas.

“Whenever I started it, I thought nobody else would ask for any of [the boxes],” Burns said. “In, like, a week, we had three or four people trying to ask for one. It was really big.”

On an evening in August 2016, Ballard scrolled through Facebook on her iPhone when she came across a post showing a box of toiletries at Table Rock Lake in Missouri that people could take and later replenish. She showed the post to Burns.

About two hours later, Burns returned to Ballard with an idea: What if they carried out a similar project with food?

Ballard was hesitant at first, but a few months later, they acquired a box, painted it crimson based on one of the University of Kansas’ colors, attached it to a post and grounded it into their front yard on 13th Street.

Soon, they learned food insecurity is a large issue in Kansas and the U.S. The box at their house was empty at the end of each day. Neighbors and local companies started donating food at a rate in which items overflowed out of Ballard and Burns’ basement. Ballard estimates they go through $500 worth of food each week.

Around December 2016, Ballard’s friend asked if she could put a box in front of her house in Maize, Kan. She did, and soon requests came frequently inquiring about adding boxes at schools, churches and families’ homes.

Products frequently found in boxes include canned sausage and tuna, peanut butter, oatmeal, cereal, water, pasta, crackers, juice boxes, whole beans, rice and granola bars. Burns brainstorms many of the project’s ideas, and his responsibilities have increased as he has grown older.

“One of the things I really love about our program is that it’s no questions asked,” said Ballard, 37. “No paperwork. No lines. No ID. No nothing.

“You need something? Go take what you need.”

Ashley Nold, an English as a Second Language teacher at Allen Elementary in Wichita, helps manage a box in front of the school. The box became trendy and continues to be as schools teach online and students look elsewhere for meals. Nold wanted to provide easier access for students, so she added a box in front of her house in Sedgwick four months later.

“I don’t think I’ve had to touch our box but three times,” said Nold, 33. “Constantly, people are out here. It’s amazing.”

In spring 2017, Paxton’s Box Project expanded to North Carolina. Now there are boxes in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. Ballard’s goal is to place a box in every state.

Ballard said business has increased during the coronavirus outbreak. She has noticed families who live paycheck to paycheck have taken food more often. That drives her to keep the project flourishing while she also works full time as the development coordinator for the community mental health center in Wichita.

When Ballard was about 10 years old in the early 1990s, her parents, Doug and Michelle, owned an antique store called M. Ballard and Company in Wichita. It was connected to the Eaton Hotel, and when Ballard was bored, she walked to the vending machine in the lobby to purchase chicken broth. She sat on a bench for about 30 minutes, eavesdropping on conversations from visitors, some of whom had lost legs and were blind. She would sometimes buy them food from the vending machine, and those experiences made her want to help others later in life.

Through his project, Burns has picked up on that lesson. When his classmates throw out food during lunch, he thinks about how much those items could’ve assisted someone less fortunate.

On Christmas Eve in 2018, Burns was baking sugar cookies with his grandmother in their warm home when Ballard looked out the window to see an adult and toddler walking in the snow to the box in front of their house. The toddler ripped a bag of bagels and devoured them, looking as if he hadn’t eaten all day.

Ballard and Burns broke down crying.

“It makes me feel good,” Burns said, “that people know the food is there for them.”