Presenting Happiness: ‘Box of Joy’ Project Brings Smiles
Cross Catholic Outreach’s gift effort brightens children’s lives each Christmas.
Last year, 5-year-old Luz Marina Rodriguez was the first one awake on the day she was to receive her Box of Joy. Full of excitement, she was ready to proceed from their rural home in El Jicaral, Nicaragua, to town to get her Christmas gift — the one and only present she would receive. Once there, Luz was thrilled to open the box and pull out surprises like a pair of pink sunglasses and a little stuffed animal. Her smile, and the smiles of other children getting their own Box of Joy, were blessings for everyone watching.
Similar scenes were happening for tens of thousands of other children in Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Grenada, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, thanks to Cross Catholic Outreach’s annual seasonal initiative.
“It’s a special day of celebrating when the children receive them,” Michele Sagarino, vice president for development for Cross Catholic Outreach, told the Register.
Sagarino described how “boxes come jam-packed” from young and old donors in the United States. “The most popular items in the Box of Joy are not always just the toys,” she said. “It could be a pair of socks that children treasure. They like a bar of soap, especially the girls, getting the scented soap … coloring books, crayons, notepads, pencils, little toys, stuffed animals, deflated soccer balls with a pump — the whole family uses that. These are things they really enjoy. They really treasure them.”
At Cross Catholic Outreach’s Miami headquarters, volunteers add a rosary and The Story of Jesus coloring book in the children’s native language, as well. College students from Ave Maria University volunteer their time to check and ready shipments to the eight countries where they will brighten lives.
Sagarino said that some businesses have donated bulk items. “A gentleman gave 1,000 handmade wooden toys for the children, and women made little dresses for the girls.”
The Boxes of Joy are available for pick up from local churches, schools and organizations.
But, first, they are filled by kindhearted people far aloft.
“We try to involve our students. They get excited about it,” Shelly Hoover-Plonk, the Box of Joy project leader for Cathedral School in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Register. This is the fifth year the elementary school has participated in the Box of Joy effort. “The hope was to have the students be the leaders of it,” Hoover-Plonk said, adding that excitement quickly took hold that inaugural year, as students created posters around the school, the student council made announcements, and many helped gather the filled boxes and take them to be blessed in the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. That excitement continues. Last year, the school collected 160 boxes, more than the previous year.
“It’s a great way for the family to work together on it and have conversations around the benefit of helping others,” said Hoover-Plonk, whose daughter Madeline, now in eighth grade, enjoys helping. The effort highlights “how we can be Jesus’ hands and feet. The Box of Joy is a blessing and a bright spot to pull in the community to share about Our Lord and teach the children.”
Cross Catholic Outreach launched the Box of Joy program for Christmas 2014. “We were looking to find a way to engage youth, parishioners, other Catholic organizations and civic groups to live out Catholic social teaching and show love of Christ in tangible projects,” Sagarino explained, “to bring children overseas the love of Christ.” The apostolate was already helping missionaries around the world with housing, water, education and other aids.
Families could do this activity together, they thought, “to encourage that spiritual communication with kids; to learn what it is to have a charitable heart; to think of others. This really is a way for our families to engage in the social teaching and show that love.”
The modest start in two U.S. dioceses — Palm Beach, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma — was overwhelming. “People wanted some tangible way to show Christ’s love,” she said. The Box of Joy spread rapidly. Today, people in 48 states participate, from parishes, schools and individuals to several Knights of Columbus councils and the National Council of Catholic Women. Close to 962 groups have signed on this year. “We want to have another 400-500 full programs run by volunteers,” Sagarino said.
Last year, 208 schools, 487 parishes in 172 dioceses, and 429 groups filled Boxes of Joy for more than 106,200 children. Sagarino said this year’s “goal is to bless 144,000 children” with a Box of Joy. Meeting that goal means that, since the first year, “540,000 children have been blessed by gifts.”
Nothing Stops Boxes of Joy
Even the devastation of Hurricane Ian did not stop people from filling and collecting the Boxes of Joy. In Cape Coral, Florida, project leader Peggy Thomas at St. Katherine Drexel parish had already collected 540 Boxes of Joy before and right after Hurricane Ian. Losing the roof and sustaining other damage to her home did not stop her. At the church, as Masses were held outdoors for a week after the hurricane, she inspired everyone to continue bringing in their boxes. As Thomas told the Register, “It is my passion.”
Two years ago, Thomas’ enthusiasm prompted people to donate 233 Boxes of Joy. Last year, she nearly tripled that figure. This year, even with all of the destruction around them, Thomas and her pastor Father Rick Varner collected 780 Boxes of Joy, 100 more than last year’s total of 683.
“The parishioners are just so generous,” she said. “Most take two — for a boy and a girl.” Before each Mass she plays a video capturing the children’s surprise and priceless “huge smiles on their faces” when they open their Boxes of Joy.
“They might know Christmas is when Christ was born, but they don’t know what a gift means. This is their one gift,” Thomas said.
The enthusiasm for packing and collecting the Boxes of Joy is growing elsewhere. Ask Alex Lopez-Bueno, chairman of the Maryland Knights of Columbus’ Box of Joy effort. Originally, he suggested the project to his council and collected 40 boxes. Then, last year, the Maryland Knights filled 4,413 boxes, doubling the state’s previous year. For 2022, he set a goal of at least 8,000, with 55 councils and a lady’s auxiliary participating thus far.
“We are not collecting boxes. We are giving some joy to these kids. That is what’s inside,” he said. A native of Colombia, Lopez-Bueno understands the blessing bestowed. “We won’t be able to see the joy of those kids, but packing those boxes you know you are making lot of kids happy. It’s the way God works.”
His daughters, fellow parishioners and daughters’ fellow schoolchildren also lend a hand — which also makes him happy. “I want to put my faith into action.”
Sagarino sees encouragement in yet another way. Cross Catholic suggests including a Christmas card in the box to further personalize the presents. Many times, the boxes contain “notes from our children here telling the children there they are praying for them, telling about their dog, what sports they play. Our Lord wants us to be connected” and show others that “God loves them.”
Everything you need to know, from gift ideas to suggestions for activities, project-leader guides and printed materials, can be accessed at: https://CrossCatholic.org/box-of-joy/.
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