By U.S. ArmyNovember 27, 2017
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When 1st Sgt. Roman Espinoza hung up his uniform for the last time in July 2016, his wife Mary said that they both knew his days of serving others were far from over.
"Roman joined the military when he was 18 years old," she said. "He has always been an extremely hard worker and has always had a passion for helping people. We both knew that was something he would always continue to do."
The couple also knew that they wanted more than anything to return "home."
Espinoza spent 17 of his 25 years in the Army at Fort Drum, where he completed assignments with the 41st Engineer Battalion, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion and Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), among others.
It was the people of the North Country -- including Mary, who grew up in Watertown -- who first captured his heart, and he wanted to give back to the community that had done so much to support him.
Mary Espinoza's connection to Fort Drum began when she took her first position working at Child and Youth Services. She went on to work at U.S. Army Medical Department Activity before the couple made a permanent-change-of-station move to Fort Bliss, Texas.
"When we came back, I was fortunate to get a job with the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center at Fort Drum," she said. "I've been there ever since, and I really enjoy it."
Roman Espinoza wasted no time in pursuing his goal to help others within the community. Just weeks after retiring, he enrolled at Jefferson Community College, where he is majoring in chemical dependency studies.
It was a class assignment that sparked an idea that would lead the Espinoza Family to take on a new venture in support of local community members.
"I was taking a human services class, and we had to give a 15-minute presentation on a subject of our choice," Roman Espinoza said. "I chose nutrition, and through my research I found out that JCC has a food pantry."
He said he was taken aback.
"I just assumed that if you had the money to go to school, then you had money for food, too," he said.
As he continued to research, Espinoza said he was surprised to learn that some students live on such a tight budget that they sometimes have to choose between spending their limited resources on gas to get to class, or on food.
One night while the couple was watching television, they saw a special about a man in Texas who had put a "Blessing Box" on his property. The concept was simple: build a container and fill it with non-perishable food items for community members.
"We had never heard of anything like it in any area where we had been stationed," Mary Espinoza said. "We thought that it was a great idea and something that a lot of people in our community could use."
They began researching, and with a rough idea of what they hoped to build, the couple made a trip to a local lumber store.
"We walked down the aisle and I came across this kid named Ian," Roman Espinoza said. "I showed him what I wanted to do, and he helped me with everything."
Using a cellphone screenshot for reference, Ian drew out dimensions and made a list of materials that they would need to construct the containers. He cut the lumber and sent the Espinoza Family home with everything they needed to construct their first Blessing Box.
"It was like a puzzle," Roman Espinoza recalled. "He had everything prepared, and all I had to do was put it together."
The couple assembled the box and placed it in their yard in June. On the front, they hung a sign that said "take what you need, bring what you can, above all else -- be blessed." They filled the box with non-perishable food and personal care items and waited to see if people would take notice.
"We were so excited when we checked and some of the items were gone," Mary Espinoza recalled.
They restocked their Blessing Box, and soon neighbors began stopping by to drop off donations. Local businesses donated everything from the building materials needed to make and weatherproof the boxes, to disposable cutlery and condiment packets, to dental hygiene items.
Mary Espinoza said that in addition to the constant flow of donations that were left in their Blessing Box, the couple often received letters and drawings from community members.
"We got one letter from a woman, and it said 'thank you. If not for the Blessing Box, my boys would have gone to bed hungry last night,'" she said.
Roman Espinoza said that he learned that some food pantries had income requirements for those who wished to use them and most had limitations as to the number of visits a household could make each month. He said that he understands the need for these measures, but he wanted to find a way to augment the assistance that local food pantries are providing.
"Sometimes people don't want to go to an organization and ask for help, for food to get them through during a tough spot," he said. "People can stop by (a Blessing Box) any time of day, any day of the year. The Blessing Box is sustained by the community, for the community and people are really showing an interest in helping."
Soon after placing the Blessing Box in their yard, the couple began receiving inquiries from other families in the area asking where they could get one.
"I decided that if we were going to see this effort continue to grow and impact other people, I was going to make sure that families who were interested could get a Blessing Box of their own," he said.
Roman and Mary Espinoza returned to the store, where he asked for Ian. He cut the lumber and compiled the materials. Then Ian surprised the Espinozas by telling them that his company had offered to provide all of the materials for free.
"We were shocked," Mary Espinoza said. "We have been so amazed at the outpouring of support that we have seen in the local community. Another local builder helped Roman weatherproof the boxes, and he supplies roofing materials and caulk to make sure that the items inside stay dry.
"It has been amazing to see all of these people come together to help their fellow community members," she added.
On Nov. 15, Roman and Mary Espinoza placed their 18th Blessing Box outside the Dionne-Rumble Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7227 in Carthage. Although the snow has begun to fall, Roman Espinosa said that he hopes to be able to install two more before the ground freezes.
The couple plans to pick back up with installations in the spring. In the meantime, they said that they have no doubt the local community will continue to support the Blessing Box effort throughout the winter.
"We see people stop by on their way home from the grocery store and drop off cereal or canned goods all the time," Roman Espinoza said. "Now that Thanksgiving is right around the corner, they are starting to drop off gravy and stuffing and things for holiday meals. They want other families to have a special holiday. It's amazing to see."
Mary Espinoza said that one of the best things about the Blessing Boxes is that the donations help people in the immediate area. She said that you can never tell who you may be helping when you donate.
"People from all walks of life find themselves in need at one time or another," she said. "When you put a donation in the Blessing Box, you are helping someone who lives right here in your community. It's all about neighbors helping neighbors."
To learn more, search "Blessing Boxes of Jefferson County, NY" on Facebook.
Community members who wish to donate may drop off non-perishable food items, toiletries and personal care items at any Blessing Box. Individuals are asked to bear in mind that while the boxes are waterproof, freezing temperatures can have an impact on the items -- particularly those in glass containers.