Imagine waking up to no presents on Christmas morning. That, unfortunately, is the reality for most children in impoverished countries like Haiti. For Jim Cavnar, president of Cross Catholic Outreach, that reality wasn’t acceptable, so he created a program to change it.
In 2011, he developed the Box of Joy ministry, a program through which Catholic parishes, schools, and groups can gather small gifts to send to children living in poverty in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and, starting this year, Nicaragua. Last year, the program delivered gifts to 31,712 children in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. With the addition of Nicaragua, the ministry’s goal is to reach at least 60,000 kids.
The impetus for the program, Cavnar says, was seeing the excitement of his own children on Christmas morning. “I think for these kids . . . almost all of them have never gotten a gift before, and you can look around and see they almost don’t know what to do,” he said in an interview with The Catholic Week, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Mobile.
Groups take part in the program in various ways. Parishes, schools, groups, and families sign up to take part in the program and collect items or raise funds in a variety of ways, such as turning their campaign into a friendly competition to see who can pack the most boxes of joy. The project’s website is CrossCatholic.org/BoxofJoy.
Those who cannot take part in group activities can take advantage of the Create-a-Box Online program, where all they have to do is select a gender and age-group, then pay for the gifts and shipment of the box. Members of Team Joy will then pack and ship the box.
Based in Florida, Cross Catholic Outreach is an official Catholic nonprofit 501(c)(3) relief and development organization that, since its founding in 2001, has given more than $1 billion in aid to help “the poorest of the poor” in more than three dozen developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world.
When the Box of Joy program began, only two dioceses took part: Palm Beach, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since then, the program has continued to grow. Last year, 315 participating Catholic parishes, schools, and groups across 48 states participated, gathering small gifts such as toys, dolls, and race cars, as well as a few treats such as hard candy and coloring books. The boxes also include essentials such as soap, pencils, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. And an extra $9 helps cover the costs of sending the boxes.
Schools in Del Ray, Florida (top photo), and All Saints School in Jupiter, Florida (second), hold packing parties to get the boxes ready and sent (third) via one of the 73 drop-off centers, where members of Team Joy (fouth) screen and ship the gifts (bottom).
Even if someone misses Box of Joy Week or there is not a drop-off center in his or her diocese, boxes can be sent directly to the National Screening Center in Miami at:
Cross Catholic Outreach–Box of Joy
C/O MIQ Logistics
11210 NW 91st Street, Suite 1
Miami, FL 33178
Sharing the Gift
According to Box of Joy director Steve Bostian, when children open their boxes, many don’t even know what the items they receive are. “The poverty is so extreme here that I think they are in shock,” he told Catholic News Service.
Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Alabama, agrees, pointing out that “some kids live in homes without electricity or running water. Some kids live in homes with dirt floors. Some kids live in the most impoverished areas.” That reality, he says, along with the fact that these kids have never received a Christmas present, makes the Box of Joy ministry an even greater blessing.
Jim Cavnar says that “while gift-giving is not the meaning of Christmas, it does help us remember the reason for Christmas—the birth of Jesus—and how our Lord received gifts from strangers. Serving Jesus through helping these children experience the joy of opening up presents is a beautiful way to show the love of Christ, and to see that love reflected in their happy faces.”
Smiles, such as the one displayed by Father Raul Monterosso and a little girl in Guatemala, are a testimony to that. Father Monterosso is the director of Caritas for the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima in Guatemala.
Often after the children receive their packages, they will not play with the contents, but rather carefully repackage them, Cavnar said this past March in an interview with Catholic News Service. He was curious as to why this was so, until his Haitian staff explained that the children “know this is something for their whole family and they will first go to their family and share it.”