36 years . . . Still Going and Growing!
— By Marcia Cook
I first learned about the Box Project* from an article in my local paper written by a sponsor of a family in Mississippi. I believe it was around 1976. What a wonderful idea! I immediately called to request a family. I wanted a family with children a little younger than mine, so I could pass down our gently used clothing. I was assigned the Hill family (not their real name) consisting of a single mother and a boy and a girl. I received a form full of objective information filled out by the social worker, about the family and their home situation. I learned about family income, any outside financial aid they received, the condition of the home, size and number of beds, and ages and sizes of clothing for each family member. I immediately wrote my first letter, introducing myself to the family, asking about their family, and ending my letter with questions about what their pressing needs were. Later on I often enclosed a checklist for Mom listing basic items (iron, towels, sheets), personal items (shampoo, lotion), household cleaners, food preferences--with boxes opposite the items for her to check, indicating what she needed.
That was the beginning of a long relationship—one that continues to this day, though it has changed over time. In the beginning the Hill family was living in a sharecropper’s shack, down a long dirt road in a rural section of Itta Bena, MS. The family had electricity, but if I remember correctly, no indoor plumbing. Water and wood had to be hauled quite a distance for drinking, cooking, and heating the home on cold winter days. Ms. Hill often had to wait for her brother to come with his truck to help her with these chores. The shack was drafty and needed many repairs. Ms. Hill frequently wrote of her desire to make a better life for her children by getting a job in the city. Slowly I began to realize that one of the primary problems in rural America is transportation. There were factory jobs to be had, but no public transportation, no way for her to get there. Her two children attended school on four conditions. They needed shoes, clothing, and school supplies, and of course a bus to get them there.
I was a former teacher, so was delighted to gather up backpacks, notebooks, and all the supplies once or twice a year for her children. Clothing wasn’t much of a problem. If I didn’t have some gently used, I bought new, or I asked my neighbors to help out. Shoes were a bit of a challenge. Adult sizes were easy, as Mom’s feet weren’t growing, and she knew what size she was. But the children’s feet were growing fast, she had no access to a shoe store (or any store other than the corner grocer), so she had no idea what size shoes they needed. She was able to share this information with me by taking brown paper grocery bags and having the children stand on them barefoot. Then she would trace their feet and write the name of the child on the footprint. I would take these to the shoe store to buy new sneakers each time they were needed.
One variable neither of us had control over was the school bus. It would only come when it could get down the dirt road without getting stuck in the mud. As a result, when it was rainy the bus never came, and the children missed out on many valuable days of school. Ms. Hill was very much aware of the importance of education and felt if she were able to move into the city of Itta Bena, her children would be able to attend school regularly. A new home there would surely be an improvement over the sharecropper’s shack they were living in. She had applied for subsidized housing several years previously and was on a long waiting list before she was finally called up.
In the meanwhile, she was able to make a little money in the summers working on the farm. My memory is she was picking cotton, but it is hard for me to believe this was still the case in the mid-seventies--cotton being picked by hand. Perhaps it was vegetables; I wish I could find the letter that spoke of this. She wrote about the sweltering Mississippi summer heat and the backbreaking work, but what broke her heart was finding out that once her meager salary was reported (money which was earmarked for school expenses) her food stamps and general aid would be slashed. This was a shock to her when it happened and something she couldn’t understand. This was seasonal work, not a steady job. By trying to earn a little money, she ended up losing a lot.
Pecan trees stood behind her shack. One snowy day up north, while I was busy shopping for toys and goodies for their Christmas box, she and the children were out in their backyard collecting pecans. They packed them up in one of the old shoeboxes I’d sent, and they arrived on my doorstep a day before Christmas, along with a handmade Christmas card and a few flecks of good ole Mississippi mud. I will never forget that act of kindness. She taught me that giving is important for all of us. Now I was the recipient of a box.
Several years later, subsidized housing opened up, and the family moved across town into an apartment in urban Itta Bena. Ms. Hill got a job at America’s Catch (“The Gourmet Catfish Company”). She worked as many hours as they would give her, despite very difficult working conditions. She wrote to me several months after moving into her new apartment with a conundrum. Which was worse, living in the isolated sharecropper’s shack out in the country, where her children were safe, or her present situation where she had a job and a better place to live, but feared for her children’s safety? She spoke of drugs and violence outside her door. She wrote of the sad deaths of loved ones, murdered in the streets. Her apartment was broken into several times. After the third time, her landlord refused to fix the lock, so each evening she would push the refrigerator over in front of the door, so no one would enter, at least while they slept. She told me not to send my boxes to her apartment because they would be stolen, but to send them to her mother who was home all day and would receive them and keep them safe.
Ms. Hill shared a great deal about her life with me, and I with her. It was all done through letters. We may have spoken once on the phone. But with letters we were able to slowly reflect and share the things we both had in common--the biggest one being that we were both mothers who loved our children fiercely and would do anything to protect and educate them.
Ms. Hill went on to have two more children. She shared her feelings about being pregnant a third and then fourth time. She was very concerned about being able to provide for them. I was also a foster parent of newborns, so I shared my experiences with her. I acted as her sounding board while she weighed her options, although I knew her strong religious convictions would result in her carrying her babies to term. She did, and she has provided well for all of her children. When I asked whether the fathers in her children’s lives were supportive in any way, she said, “I won’t let any man near my children.”
I wanted my friend to have some of the nice things that I had, things that I took for granted. When I changed the color scheme in my dining room, I sent her the nearly new placemats that I had previously used. She wrote back saying how lovely they were, and that as soon as she was able to get a table, she would be pleased to use them. She opened my eyes in a completely new way. I probably sent her other useless items that she just didn’t mention! It was easy to remember all the fun child events: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, Easter, and of course Christmas. My children enjoyed helping to fill these boxes always sticking in a cake mix, a little candy, fun but not necessary items. We all deserve the fun little things in life.
Because the Hills often ran out of food by the third week of the month, I sent food most of all. This was a challenge because of the cost of shipping. The items had to be nutritious and light. I’m afraid my boxes were sometimes boring, frequently containing peanut butter, dry milk, dry Lipton soups, Jello and puddings, canned hams, canned chicken, tuna fish, sardines, rice and beans, bags of lentils, a muffin or brownie mix. Whenever the supermarket offered two for one, I would drop one item in the box, which was always open and waiting in the dining room corner. I learned that food stamps couldn’t be used for paper products, cleaning supplies, or drug store items, so I often included some of these in my boxes.
As time passed, the number of boxes I sent dwindled, requests came less often, as did the letters between us. She and I both were overwhelmed with childrearing, and things took a natural course. I still remembered the big events, Christmas and birthdays, just like I did with my extended family. Finally Ms. Hill wrote that she had work related carpal tunnel syndrome. Her eyesight was poor, and she needed glasses. (How could I send her glasses without knowing her prescription?) All of which, she explained, kept her from writing me letters.
A couple of years went by with little contact between us, but then as her youngest daughter reached high school age, she began to write to me. She was an excellent correspondent, seldom asking for anything. She seemed genuinely concerned about me and my family and eager to share her thoughts. She shared many of the awkward teenage moments with me; boyfriend troubles, fun with her favorite girlfriend, the prom, the class trip, and what was going on at home. She wrote a lovely poem and shared it with me. Now the letters have stopped because we are emailing each other, sending digital pictures and planning to get together soon. From a recent email: “I really hope things go well and that we will be able to finally visit each other face to face. It would be a great representation of how the Box Project connects people through out a lifetime. I hope all is well with you and the family, I love you guys very much, you are all like family.”
I couldn’t be prouder of the Hill family. Mom worked tirelessly to improve her children’s lives. She knew education was the way up and out. She provided all she could for them and was a role model of commitment and hard work. The kids all worked hard, and I believe did their best under adverse circumstances. The Hill family received a Habitat for Humanity home about four years ago. In May 2012, the youngest daughter graduated from Delta State University. She hopes to attend graduate school and become a social worker or counselor. Her oldest brother is a professor of computer science at Mississippi Valley State University, and received his PhD in 2008 . Her oldest sister completed two years of college and has a good job at Viking Corporation, which makes quality kitchen appliances. She has her own apartment and is raising two beautiful children. Her younger brother is the father of two and is involved in their lives. When the oldest son connected with me on email, his first contact as an adult, he told me the boxes I sent were often the only presents he ever got as a child. He said I made those special holidays fun for him and the family. But mostly he said, I had given him hope--hope that life could be different and better for him. He said he always had something to look forward to. Those boxes, I learned, contained much more than things.
When I reflect on all of this, 36 years after I sent that first box, the boxes themselves just fade away into memory. They were just the catalyst that brought us together--two families who most likely would never have gotten to know or learn from each other. We started out as complete strangers, enmeshed in our own lives, possessing our own stereotypes and prejudices. Now we are friends, eager to hear about each other’s lives, and changed forever by this enduring friendship that began with that first Box.
*From the Box Project website (http://www.boxproject.org) “Our mission is to encourage and enrich the lives of families and individuals living in poverty in rural America by establishing meaningful relationships, promoting education, and offering material aid.” Boxes are typically sent once a month, and are followed by correspondence from the receiving family to the sponsor family.
Marcia R. Cook © 2012