Heart of Honolulu: Kailua Family Reaches Out with a Little Help Across the Sidewalk
The Harrises expanded their little free library into a small pantry that offers food, toilet paper and a place for neighbors to connect safely during quarantine.
Heart of Honolulu is a collection of stories that feature locals performing small acts of kindness and generosity in their communities.
The Harris family of Kailua keeps a free pantry-library stocked next to the busy sidewalk in front of their Enchanted Lake home. From left to right: The family’s au pair Juliane Roepke; Reina Harris; 3-year-old twins, Hope and Valor; Robert Harris; 6-year-old Aurora.
Photos: Robbie Dingeman
When Robert Harris and his family moved into their Enchanted Lake house three years ago, they knew that the front yard once hosted a “free store” where the previous owner encouraged people to drop and swap furniture, books, construction supplies and other recyclable items rather than throw them away. Harris, who grew up in Kailua and graduated from Kalāheo High School, forged a new tradition by building a library, which the family expanded into a free pantry in mid-March.
Harris heard about people in other communities transforming their little free libraries to share food and other necessities with their neighbors. When he shared the idea with his family, they got behind the project right away, especially his wife, Reina, an OB-GYN at Kaiser Permanente’s Waipi‘o clinic, and 6-year-old Aurora, who helped build and paint the bigger pantry-library. Three-year-old twins Hope and Valor seem to like the idea, too, watching with interest as the pantry fills and empties.
“Food comes and goes regularly,” Harris says. “It’s really wonderful to see the community come together.”
People pass by at all hours on Keolu Drive: biking, running, skateboarding, walking dogs, pushing strollers, and since the pantry-library is next to the sidewalk, lots of folks see it every day. The Harris family doesn’t ask questions of those who stop by to pick up or drop off or just peek inside. Some people pause to chat near the sidewalk—careful to stay 6 feet apart—to let the Harrises know they appreciate the effort. Harris happened to see one family pick up items a couple of times, then return on April 15 to donate some food. When the toilet paper shortage got especially crazy early on, older folks anxious about going to the store thanked the Harrises for sharing the suddenly scarce commodity.
The family has been touched by the outpouring from those who’ve used the pantry as well as the stream of contributions that show up steadily. Harris is the public policy manager for the San Francisco-based Sunrun solar energy company, a job he took after serving six years at the executive director of the Sierra Club Hawai‘i Chapter. He is working from home so he does most of the restocking of food and other items. Many people have left thank-you notes detailing specific items that they were happy to find. And the community support has been tremendous, with many families regularly dropping off supplies, he says. After expanding the library, they made a new Kailua Free Store sign they plan to put up that pays tribute to the neighborly tradition started by previous owner Bob Bourke.
When they receive more food than they can quickly give out, the Harrises donate to a homeless outreach organization in Waimānalo. People have even donated masks to the pantry, which disappeared quickly.
One day Harris noticed several items had vanished at once: toilet paper, two scented candles and a book. Just goes to show that one person’s donation can turn out to be just the right find for someone else.