Thomas Gala is but 14, but he understands the human condition.
Such as being a single mom and not having the money to purchase diapers for the baby.
Or not having enough money to buy a bottle of shampoo and bar of soap between now and payday, and not wanting the embarrassment of going to work or a job interview without attending to personal hygiene.
Or being so hungry, and poor, that a microwave macaroni and cheese dinner tastes amazing.
Thomas, the son of Steve and Michelle Gala of Geneva, understands because his Blessing Boxes are solving these issues for residents of Lake and Ashtabula counties. The four boxes, similar in concept to the Little Libraries that have appeared in the past five years, provide a point of contact for anonymous donors and recipients of food, personal hygiene supplies, winter wear, socks and other human necessities.
The boxes were Gala’s Eagle Scout project; he is scheduled to receive the rank in early February, at a Court of Honor held in Painesville. Thomas will become the youngest member of Painesville’s Troop 68, to make Eagle Scout.
That’s an honor Thomas has been planning for ever since he moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts at the age of 10. Of course, he had to climb the ranks and earn the merit badges—36 of them thus far—before he could propose an Eagle Scout project. Once Thomas received approval, he moved swiftly to mobilize approximately 20 other Scouts to build and install the boxes.
“I began to think about my project about one-and-a-half years ago,” Thomas says. “It was in the summer of 2016 that I saw a Facebook page for the Blessing Boxes. Someone had done them in Crystal Rock, Arkansas.”
In addition to the boxes’ potential to help people with very basic needs, the project appealed to Thomas because it had not been done in the area.
“I was looking for a project that I could do before the (idea) became overpopulated in the area,” he says.
He wrote his plan in the fall of 2016 and received approval in February 2017. Thomas modified the original Blessing Box design to make it simpler in design and more attractive in appearance. The box is made of wood and measures 2 feet by 2 feet with a depth of 1 foot. There is one shelf in it; a clear acrylic door protects the donated items from the weather and invites the needy to take what they need and the blessed to leave what they can.
The sites are:
- Geneva, Liberty Street Covered Bridge parking area;
- Madison, Second Congregational Church;
- Dorset Township, Baptist Church, Route 193;
- Painesville, Life Brand Cowboy Church.
Initially, he reached out to all the Geneva churches, but response was lackluster; only one church emailed a response. Wanting to keep one in his hometown, he reached out to City Manager Doug Starkey. Working with the Civic Improvement Corporation, Thomas received permission to place a box at the covered bridge parking lot.
The process of getting a project site approved turned out to be the most challenging aspect of his work. Thomas says that experience gave him an opportunity to learn and grow.
“It was extremely difficult to get these approved,” he says. “I think the hardest part was just figuring out what to say (to the decision makers).”
His father’s workshop provided the basic tools needed to build and finish the boxes. The Scouts also did the installation.
Thomas says the four boxes cost a total of $550 for materials. Virtually all of the monetary donations for supplies came from private sources.
Based upon notes left inside the boxes and feedback posted on municipal and church Facebook pages, the donations left in the boxes are making a difference in the lives of other people. Not surprisingly, that’s one of the reasons Thomas enjoys being in Scouting and giving so much of his time to it.
“I feel that Scouting helps a lot of people,” he says. “It teaches basic skills, outdoor skills, life skills. And I enjoy being outside.”
Thomas is an Ohio Virtual Academy student and takes advanced English, math and science classes. His career goal is the culinary field, but he’s not selected a school. “I don’t like to plan that far ahead,” he says, despite the planning that went into becoming an Eagle Scout and his project.
Aside from the accolades, Thomas is no longer involved officially in the Blessing Boxes project. Each receiving organization agreed to take responsibility for the box on its property; the CIC monitors the one in Geneva. But Thomas and his family check on the boxes occasionally. Thomas and his mother say they are pleased with the way residents have donated items that are keeping with the practical needs of the community.
They suggest that during the winter months, when liquid products could be damaged from the cold, donors stock the boxes with dry food products, socks, hats, gloves, mittens and disposable diapers. Canned goods can return to the boxes come spring.
Thomas says Geneva did have some vandalism issues with the Liberty Street box, but the city was able to track down and deal with the source. Otherwise, the boxes are very much living up to their names.