By Lauren Krouse
The Foxes Boxes was always designed to empower and connect community. Rachel Bodkin-Fox, co-owns the casual, counter-service restaurant in the Brooklyn Arts District with her husband Randy, a 25-year hospitality industry veteran. They opened the restaurant in December 2016, just two days after Bodkin-Fox completed her Masters in Public Administration at UNC-Wilmington.
While the restaurant’s boxes – filled with unique offerings like kalbi steak with rice and chicken with brie and pear chutney are delicious – the Fox family didn’t open their restaurant just to show off Randy’s culinary chops. Their sole intention was to provide an “externship” for people with employment barriers.
The Foxes Boxes externship is a 240-hour, paid workforce development program for low-income, low-skilled workers, provided through community partners like the New Hanover County Workforce Center and their NextGen program as well as LINC, a nonprofit which serves folks re-entering society after incarceration. So far, The Foxes Boxes has had 14 externs transition into work, school, or both.
The restaurant also regularly hosts a multitude of events to encourage community members to forge connections, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The third Wednesday of every month, the Foxes welcome Northside neighbors, refugees, foster families, returning citizens, students, the displaced population, local nonprofits, and others to share their stories during “What’s Your Story Wednesday.”
Every Tuesday, the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society hosts free swing dancing. They also hold DREAMS art shows, film screenings, yoga classes, and Support the Port Fresh Friday and Book Tour, among many other meetups and events.
By the time Hurricane Florence began her vicious path toward Wilmington, The Foxes Boxes had already become a popular meeting spot for compassionate community members. Over the past year, Kristen McKeithan and Greg Pampell of Good Works, a developing nonprofit, had forged a partnership with the restaurant, distributing donated food to community members in need.
The day before the storm arrived, the Foxes checked in with everyone they knew, exchanging cell phone numbers and keeping track of who was staying and evacuating. “We fed everyone who stopped by that afternoon and took one final walk down the boardwalk that evening,” Bodkin-Fox remembers. “Right before dusk, some of our special neighbors stopped in for cookies and hugs, then after that, everyone pretty much hunkered down.”
The Foxes were concerned that if they stayed in their home, they wouldn’t be able to navigate floodwaters to reach the restaurant, their sole source of income. It was also where community members knew they could find help if they needed it. So, the Foxes stayed. “The Foxes Boxes is located in one of the oldest standing furniture stores in Wilmington,” Bodkin-Fox says. “Solid brick, and our landlord boarded up our windows — it was like a storm bunker.” By early Friday morning, the power and cell service went out. Saturday evening, the Foxes’ phones buzzed with tornado alerts. In the wake of Florence, Kristen, Greg, and an ever-growing group of Good Works volunteers met at The Foxes Boxes to prepare sandwiches to distribute to neighbors.
As they walked door to door with “lunch wagons” full of food and supplies, Bodkin-Fox and her fellow volunteers collected the addresses of those who were medically fragile and who had the most emergent home repairs. “Using a grid map of the Northside, we focused on first getting to areas still without power, and those who were most vulnerable,” Bodkin-Fox explains. “That was when we realized how many of our families were running low on food.” Over the next few weeks, using donations from World Central Kitchen, US Foods, and Pine Valley Market, the team at Foxes Boxes was able to deliver over 3,000 meals. Barbara Parker, a volunteer, says residents “gave back with their smiles, each had a “thank you” or “God Bless,” and their hugs, and even tears of relief that they were not alone.”
As they visited homes, volunteers notified folks that they could come “shop” at the restaurant-turned-relief center, where organizers arranged tables full of food, water, and supplies. Regular customers who had evacuated brought in truckloads of donations, many before they even went to see their own homes. The Foxes’ daughter and youngest son also pitched in from afar, launching a t-shirt fundraiser in the midst of the storm and an Amazon Wishlist with the help of a family friend who had survived Hurricane Harvey. “It continues to bring in large amounts of donations every day from people all over the country,” Bodkin-Fox says.
For those who are interested in getting involved but don’t know where to start, Bodkin-Fox recommends thinking of your own talents and looking for gaps to fill. One volunteer, for instance, spent over an hour helping a man who had lost his home navigate the FEMA system to apply for aid. Local artist Kim Beller donated 13 paintings on display at the restaurant, with 100% of the proceeds going to relief and rebuilding. Good Works volunteers continue to meet at the restaurant regularly, before breaking out into groups to clean up yards, saw down trees, and tarp roofs.
Many volunteers lost their own homes in the storm. Still, they reach out to help. As Bodkin-Fox reflects, “The outpouring of giving together with the stories of loss create a very intense, emotional feeling that is difficult to explain. All I want to keep saying is that this has been so much greater than any one person, any one organization, or any one restaurant. It’s still a lot to process.”
Parker, who continues to volunteer with Foxes Boxes, says, “Rachel is an inspiration and a driving force — her empathy and vision for her Northside community is amazing. She shows compassion for others and she’s respectful of their feelings and needs at the same time, and yet she is reluctant to accept praise or recognition for what she does.”
As recovery efforts continue, the Cape Fear Volunteer Center can link first-time volunteers with tasks that are a good fit for them. As Bodkin-Fox notes, though, “If going through a volunteer service does not feel comfortable, then just walk around your neighborhood with a broom or a rake, and meet your neighbors by offering to do a little clean-up.”
You could also consider swinging by The Foxes Boxes to lend a hand, have a conversation with someone new, or, at the very least, give the falafel sliders a try.