On the corner of Kavanagh and Cantrell in Little Rock sits a little purple house, with a colorful sign out front that reads “free water,” with the “T” often shaped like a cross. Below it sits a cooler filled with 15 bottles of water, resting on ice to keep them cold.
The cooler will be out from May to late September for any thirsty passersby, day and night. In a society with so much darkness, Andrea Cordell and her cooler are beacons of light.
“We’re called to love one another and treat others the way we want to be treated and if I were out walking and had no water and was about to die of heat, I would want to find some water or have somebody offer water to me,” said Cordell, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock. “… I don’t scream ‘I’m Catholic’ by giving out water. It’s just who I am as a person and I guess that’s just the Jesus in me.”
Cordell, a cradle Catholic and mother of seven, ages 9 to 29, has lived in the famed purple house for 25 years, hailing from Corpus Christi, Texas. She is serving as interim director of religious education at the Cathedral, a position she had held for 10 years before leaving in 2011.
The house initially gained attention in the Heights neighborhood for its wrap of Christmas lights covering the home each year, something Cordell said she hopes to bring back this year.
“We painted it purple about, oh gosh eight years ago maybe,” she said, adding it used to be “a blah color. It was nothing special.”
But these days, the house’s uniqueness is not centered on its color or the Christmas lights, but the simple act of kindness that has been sitting in the front yard for more than five years. The idea was planted a few years prior when Cordell said she opened her front door to check the mail only to find a man sprawled on her front steps.
“He had a lawn mower and was just like exhausted, heat exhaustion and I said, ‘May I help you?’ and he said, ‘Well, I just needed to rest.’ He had been pushing the lawn mower around looking for lawns to mow,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, let me get you some water’ and he said, ‘Yes thank you’ and gulped down two big glasses of water and I said, ‘Please sit as long as you need to.’”
“Then in the back of my head I thought, why don’t I keep water out? I thought it was stupid and silly, who keeps water in their front yard for people?”
In 2012, with high record-setting temperatures in Arkansas, Cordell’s friends that jog suggested she put some water out for local runners. That quick suggestion was enough and now, her youngest children — Clara, 16, Olivia, 13 and Vincent, 9 — often help her refill the cooler.
She hopes her children learn “you don’t have to do something great, you can do something little like putting water in the front yard. It brings joy to other people and it brings joy to me.”
While Cordell doesn’t expect or need a ‘thank you’ — seeing two to three bottles a day taken is thanks enough — people often leave thank you notes or drop off packages of water on her doorstep. She once received a thank you note and cookies from runners who wrote she “saved them” from passing out.
“They were the color of the house; it was so cute,” she said.
But her favorite story was a man who stopped by a few years ago one evening. Her family was sitting on the front porch when a beat-up car pulled into the driveway next door.
“He said, ‘Ma’am, I wanted to tell you that for the last two summers I have not had a car and I would walk by here every day to go to work and I would stop and take water and I am so appreciative of the water being there, and I don’t have much but here is $3. Let me buy a case of water for you,’” Cordell said. “I said, ‘Thank you that means a lot to me.’”
It’s moments like this that make up for the negative. At least two to three times a year, her cooler is stolen, but thanks to publicity from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article last year, which boosted the “likes” on her “The Little Purple House” Facebook page, people have generously brought her replacements. She has occasionally written in sharpie on both the sign and cooler “Thou shall not steal.”
“People tell me to chain it down, but I’m not going to chain it down. This is an exercise in faith,” she said. “I want to have faith in the people in the neighborhood that drive by, that there’s good in the world.”
Cordell said she’s often contemplated ways to grow the ministry, toying with the idea of dropping water off at area parks or other intersections. On July 4, she put out extra water for runners speeding by during the annual Firecracker Fast 5K. But she admits even if it never goes beyond her front yard, it will still put a smile on her face.
“I just hope that if somebody sees the little bit of good I do they’ll think, ‘Huh, maybe I can do something little like that’ and that will help the world in some little small way,” she said. “… You can do mighty things through small deeds, isn’t that what Mother Teresa said? Good stuff still happens. You can leave a cooler of water in your front yard and most of the time it won’t get stolen.”
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