Holiday project sends wrapped gifts to world’s needy

Appleton parish participates in ‘Box of Joy’ Christmas gift project

Jacqueline Lopez, left, and Fabiola Lopez, administrative assistant at St. Therese Parish in Appleton, package shoe boxes with Christmas treats destined for impoverished families in Latin America. The two women co-lead the Little Flowers Girls Club at St. Therese Parish, which is spearheading the Box of Joy campaign. (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

APPLETON — The members of St. Therese Parish in Appleton are a global community. “The majority of our Spanish-speaking parishioners are from Mexico, but we have people from other Spanish-speaking countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic,” said the parish’s administrative assistant, Fabiola Lopez. “Plus, we have a number of people from Micronesia.”

When the opportunity was presented to the parish during the 2020 Christmas season to give back to communities in Central America and South America, the parishioners embraced it. Lopez, who has worked for the parish for four years, explained what inspired this initiative.

“We have the Cross Catholic Outreach missionary priests that come every year. Visiting their website, we saw that Box of Joy was one of their ministries,” she said. “During the COVID year, Fr. Ryan (Starks) said this might be a good idea (for a project at church) and then I took it on.”

According to Cross Catholic Outreach’s website, Box of Joy is a fun, simple way for parishes, schools or ministries to help children in developing countries experience the joy of Christmas. A  project leader registers their group and the number of children they’d like to reach and then receives a project leader kit with materials and directions for a successful faith-in-action activity. A kickoff event is held in October.

After that, the project leader and their group shop for gifts — small toys, hygiene items, school supplies, hard candy, etc. — and pack the boxes. Each group member includes a $9 donation to cover the cost of shipping and to support the priests and nuns ministering to these children. The project leader delivers the boxes to an area drop-off center. From there, Cross Catholic Outreach takes over to ensure the boxes are delivered to the intended recipients. 

“We promote this in our bulletin every weekend for about a month in the fall,” noted Lopez. “We get all the material shipped from Florida from Cross Catholic Outreach’s headquarters — the boxes, envelopes for donations, a brochure and bookmark with information about the Box of Joy program, plus shipping containers.”

The driving force behind this endeavor is St. Therese’s Little Flowers Girls Club which Lopez co-leads with her sister, Jacqueline Lopez. “This is a group of about 15 girls from our parish in third through eighth grade,” she said. The group includes Lopez’s 11-year-old daughter Sophia Lopez who attends St. Francis Xavier Middle School in Appleton and her niece Camila Lopez. “This is a service project for them. They help collect the boxes, fold them and package them (after they are filled and returned to church),” she said. Other parishioners, including Lopez’s mother, Silvia Muñoz , help with the project during various stages as well.

Boxes are packed specifically for girls and boys in the 2 to 4, 5 to 9, and 10 to 14 age groups. Parishioners choose the age group and gender for which they’d like to create a box. Lopez noted that they get the most donations for children in the 5 to 9 age group and that the children receiving the boxes live in impoverished countries in Latin America. 

“These boxes are for children who may not receive anything for Christmas, so really anything that your heart desires can go into the box,” Lopez added. “Whatever you can fit. We usually suggest maybe clothing or a garment, something for school and something fun like a small toy. Maybe something, if it fits, for hygiene, like a travel-size toothpaste. Crayons, books or anything religious like a rosary. A lot of the boxes are packed with rosaries or prayer cards of saints.”

Parishioners at St. Therese are very generous, Lopez said. “Some of these boxes could be going to the country that they came from,” she said. “So, it’s more touching and closer to their heart. People are so grateful for the life that they’ve been able to create here that they want to pay it back. Sometimes they were in that same situation as children, where they didn’t have anything to open for Christmas or Epiphany — most Latin American countries celebrate Epiphany instead of Christmas.”

The parish does get feedback from Cross Catholic Outreach about the impact of their gifts. “They send us an email saying these are how many boxes were collected, what countries received the boxes, and they post pictures of the children receiving their boxes or opening their boxes,” she said.

Leading this outreach has been rewarding for Lopez. “It brings a lot of joy to me,” she said. “Just knowing that other children are going to get something at Christmastime. We are very privileged here to be able to pay back. Especially with the whole COVID year. We were impacted here, but the impact in other countries was much worse. We’re still able to share our resources and share gifts so we want to make sure that we also extend those blessings to other children.”