Last year, Emily Simmons started collecting snacks, toys and toothbrushes for children entering the foster care system. She places the items in decorative photo boxes with notes to let the children know they’re loved.
The project started as a collection drive for the Philomath High School student’s senior project. Now, Simmons, who is 18, is the “welcome box” coordinator for Benton County.
The welcome boxes are a project of Every Child Oregon, an organization that seeks community support for foster families and children. The boxes are given to children while they’re in a Department of Human Services office waiting to be placed into a foster home, Simmons said.
“A lot of the time when children are brought into the foster system they don’t have a lot of items of their own,” she said. “They don’t have anything to occupy them while they’re waiting to be placed in a home, either.”
Simmons said some children who enter the foster system carry their items in trash bags.
“The only thing that should be in a garbage bag is garbage, and it can be really damaging when that’s all you have to put your things in,” she said.
The photo boxes provide a personal touch and, being about the size of a shoebox, can include several items in a compact space.
Simmons buys photo boxes and leaves them in the lobby at Suburban Christian Church, where they can be picked up by anyone who wants to get involved. Volunteers should choose whether they want the box to go to a boy or a girl and what age range. After the boxes are filled with items, they should be returned to the church. Simmons stores the boxes until a DHS office expresses a need for more.
Volunteers are asked to fill the boxes with items like coloring books, playing cards, action figures, stuffed animals and silly putty.
“It’s like a giant toy store in here,” Simmons said of her stockpile of donated items for boxes.
Each box is required to have something to color or write on and something to color or write with, as well as a toothbrush, toothpaste, flashlight, nightlight and a handwritten note.
Other items that many people include are books, water bottles, socks, granola bars, lip balm and crafts. The items must be able to fit into the box and cannot be religious or violent in nature. There’s a lot of room for creativity since the boxes go to children ranging from infancy to 18 years old, Simmons said.
She said the note is the most important part. She opened a box she had in storage and read the included message: “I enclosed photos of nature on a few postcards. As beautiful and valuable as those places on Earth are, I wanted you to know you are more beautiful and valuable. Much love to you dear one.”
“If I was in the shoes of that child, I can’t even describe how much I would need to hear something like that,” Simmons said.
She said she has friends who have been in the foster care system and has been touched by how the experience has affected them.
One interaction with a friend cemented for Simmons the importance of welcome boxes when she was just starting to get involved with the project. While working at Camp Attitude last summer, she told a fellow counselor about her senior project.
“She said, ‘I really wish I had had a welcome box when I was brought into the foster system a few years ago,'” Simmons said. “She told me about how much it meant to her and how badly she had wanted that kind of support even from someone she didn’t know during that time because of how hard it was.
“I think that was when it really hit me," she added, "that this was something that actually made a difference in people’s lives.”
She also recalled a story she heard through Every Child about two boys who were in a DHS office waiting for a home when they received their welcome boxes. The younger boy noticed the note inside and said to the older one, “Brother, we’re loved!”
“I bawled my eyes out,” Simmons said about hearing that story. “It’s crazy to see that these aren’t just boxes full of toys. They are boxes full of things that will mean a lot to a child.”
Simmons first heard about Every Child through her mother. The teen started getting her local community involved. But Simmons, who composes music and illustrates, also has a sizable online following. When fans asked if they could send her money to support her work, she requested they donate to Every Child instead. When she spread the word about the welcome boxes, people from around the world starting donating, Simmons said.
“There was just so much love,” she said. “I can’t even put it into words how incredible it was to feel people wanting to get involved with this and help people.”
Simmons said the DHS workers have been appreciative of the welcome box project. While the employees are busy finding homes, the boxes and items inside provide emotional support and entertainment for the children, she said.
While Simmons isn’t yet sure what she’s doing after she graduates in June, she said the welcome boxes will remain an important part of her life.