HELENA — As kids do, Jessica Andersen-Eller’s kept growing out of their clothes.

In the past, she’d donated those outgrown clothes, along with other household items, to organizations that would turn around and sell them. Wouldn’t it be more helpful, more in the spirit of giving, she thought, if there was an organization that would simply facilitate giving those items away? No hassles. No applications. Anonymous. Available anytime. 

“I saw something on Pinterest about sharing school supplies, and it really founded the idea,” said Anderson-Eller, a Helena mother of five. “It started with a box on my [street] corner where I put their used snow pants, boots, mittens, or whatever, that they’d outgrown, put it up on a Facebook post that said ‘Free Stuff,’ and it was very well-received. I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t we just do this all the time, with clothes, food, household items, for anyone who needs it?’” 

That idea has grown into the Neighborhood Pantry Project (NPP), with several locations around town and Anderson-Eller as its executive director. Its motto: “Take what you need, give what you can.”

Since its inception in the summer of 2020, NPP has become a vital nonprofit resource for many people throughout the city. The pandemic, and the more recent rise in inflation, highlighted the need for such a service and sparked NPP’s growth. 

“COVID definitely promoted it, to get to where it is now,” Andersen-Eller said.

“There was such a huge need. People were out of work, out of money,” she added. “They couldn’t get to the store. Some had a surplus, and they really wanted to help, so it really kind of prompted the whole thing. So now the biggest challenge we have had is kind of trying to figure out regular life outside of COVID.”

NPP will accept basically anything anyone is willing to give, excepting non-perishable food items and old mattresses. Canned goods, diapers, firewood, clothing, personal hygiene and care products, shoes, kitchen appliances, gloves, blankets and towels are all needed.

“I just think it is a really cool way to full-circle-donate. Giving anonymously is one of the most generous things you can do,” Andersen-Eller said. 

“And it doesn’t matter who is taking it. It doesn’t matter why they’re taking it. You are just giving because you want to give.” Anyone can use NPP, any time, day or night.

“Whenever people have a little extra, they throw things in, and whenever there is a need, they can pick up whatever they need,” she said.

There are five pantry locations around Helena: the corner of Hollins Avenue and Cleveland Street; the walking mall in Last Chance Gulch; the Holter Museum of Art; the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area; and behind the First Presbyterian Church on Rodney Street. 

“People were out of work, out of money. They couldn’t get to the store. Some had a surplus, and they really wanted to help, so it really kind of prompted the whole thing.”

Jessica Andersen-Eller, NPP executive director

NPP also has many local business partners. Grateful Bread Bakery and Café, No Sweat Café, Loft Studios, Ten Mile Brewery, Hokkaido and Blackfoot Brewery have all helped Andersen-Eller sponsor events to raise donations for the project.  

In addition to its pantry locations, NPP also has an annual Holiday-Christmas program that matches families in need with people who want to sponsor holiday meals for families.

“We also have done free clothing swaps, where you bring your lately loved and laundered clothing, and people can come pick them up or drop them off,” Andersen-Eller said.

Cayla Clark, of Helena, praised NPP for how it helps the community.  

“In late October, my 5-year-old stepdaughter was visiting from Florida, and the pantry project provided donations of clothing, coats, shoes and lots of toys. We were so grateful,” Clark said. “Anything that we didn’t use, we were able to drop off at a pantry near us, to provide for the next family.”

Andersen-Eller said a large number of homeless people rely on NPP donations as well. 

“There is a need, and it’s not going to go away,” she said. “They’re humans that need things, so it’s a really nice way to just have those things available. My big thing is, I never want there to be any kind of requirements to utilize the project, so anybody can go any time and for any reason. I have been shocked and humbled by how much more there is to give than take.”

For more information on the Neighborhood Pantry Project, visit Neighborhood Pantry Project.

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Christine Sullivan is a journalist who lives in Helena. She studied print journalism and mass communications at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow’s College of Communication and in 2017 interned at The Times in London. Back in the states, she freelanced for The Everett Herald and the Journal of the San Juan Islands. In 2019, she moved from the Seattle area to the mountains of Montana for a gig at MTN’s KTVH, and, for a time, at ABC-FOX’s Montana Right Now as she finished her degree in political science and pre-law at Carroll College in 2022.