Equipped with an empty white box in hand, St. Martins middle school girls stared down a long line of tables covered in toys, puzzles and games in their school’s gymnasium.
Following their eighth grade peer Addison Schroer’s lead, they selected one of each item on their side and placed it in the box. But it wasn’t a speedy, grab-and-go assembly line. The choices they made for each item came with much thought, pairing Minions Band-aids with the same character toys or heart-shaped stickers with puzzles of the same hue.
Once the box reached its brim with 10 or so items, they selected a personalized handmade card from young area students. Each was adorned with hand-drawn pictures and shared messages like “I hope you feel better” or “always have faith.”
Folding in yellow tissue paper and placing the card on top, the girls left the box at the end of the table for 16-year-old Olivia Hennon. The Helias Catholic High School sophomore put the finishing touches on each box: an enclosed story about how the nonprofit organization Hennon founded came to be and a sticker that exemplifies what each package truly is, a Little Box of Sunshine.
One hundred “Little Boxes of Sunshine” were assembled during the Girls Night Out event Feb. 3. They enjoyed mass and dinner, and played icebreaker bingo and minute to win it games. They also learned to write apology or appreciation letters to someone, compose compliments of love and encouragement, and create something for someone else in need, themed after a bible verse to “seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly.”
By “walking humbly,” those girls have brought joy and happiness to children who experience long periods alone in hospitals awaiting treatments and receiving intensive medical treatment with this simple care package.
Since founding the organization in 2016, Hennon and a group of contributors and volunteers have distributed more than 500 boxes to children’s hospitals across the Midwest. Fellow student and community support, events like Girls Night Out and upcoming fundraisers like the second annual 5K Walk, Run and Roll April 28 in Jefferson City only help the organization spread sunshine to even more children.
Little Box of Sunshine started after Hennon became good friends with a girl she first met at art camp, Margaret Romph. At 5 years old, Romph was injured in a car accident on Jan. 2, 2009, breaking her neck in two places, breaking both of her legs and suffering two spinal cord injuries. She was dead at the scene, but revived.
“She is paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator. She continues to face the daily struggles of life as a quadriplegic with a smile that can brighten up any room. Margaret inspires me every day with her kind yet sassy attitude and positive outlook on life,” Hennon said of the now 14 year old.
Over Christmas break in 2015, Hennon was talking with her uncle about Romph and how she felt things weren’t fair to her. He suggested Hennon do something. That next summer Hennon’s dear friend was in the hospital for 67 days, and while visiting Romph and her family there she saw other children dropped off and left alone for several days or even weeks until time for them to leave.
“That wasn’t easy to watch. They didn’t have anything to play with or do besides the few therapists there could give them,” Hennon said. “I thought this was one thing I could do, to give them something.”
That something became a Little Box of Sunshine. This box is filled with 10 to 12 games, activities, stickers, handmade pillow cases and care package items that keep children experiencing long hospital stays often alone entertained and active.
Before the first box was delivered, Hennon knew she needed to set up her new charitable cause for success. She first held a fundraiser to sell T-shirts and was pleasantly surprised to sell 150. With money to put into their cause, Hennon and her parents, Lisa and Doug, talked to CPA Lorelei Schwartz, who guided them in what they needed to do to become a nonprofit organization. They spent the first four months opening up a separate bank account, establishing themselves as a nonprofit organization, applying for tax-exempt status and completing all the necessary paperwork to get started.
Hennon held her first box assembly at Helias, putting together 100 boxes she and her parents brought to three St. Louis hospitals: Shriners Hospital for Children, St. Louis Children’s Hospital and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
“When we deliver them we don’t get to go into the rooms. But at one hospital they had one patient who was out and about, so they just brought her down and we got to meet her. That was really fun,” Hennon said. “We put all of our information in the boxes, which has our P.O. Box, so about two in every 100 we deliver we have received a note of thanks back. … It is awesome because you know somebody actually got it.”
That first encounter and delivery fueled Hennon’s passion for Little Box of Sunshine even more.
Everywhere Hennon and her family visited, they would check to see if there was a hospital they could stop at. As a result, since starting the organization in June 2016, they have delivered boxes to a hospital while visiting Doug’s family in Kansas City, in Michigan while on vacation and in Indianapolis while Hennon and a group of fellow teens from Immaculate Conception Parish attended the National Catholic Youth Conference. “We squeeze in deliveries wherever we can. It doesn’t take that long,” Hennon said with a smile.
The gratification of knowing a child’s day will be brightened by that little box of sunshine comes with each delivery. However, the many steps, hard work and preparation it takes to get to that point are just as gratifying.
Every organization starts with a passionate board of directors. Lisa and Doug continue to back up their daughter, the board president, serving as treasurer and vice president respectively. Additional board members include Hennon’s aunt Julie Maschmann, Romph’s mother Sherline, family friend Linda Harvey, Tina Jenkins and Helias campus minister Maureen Quinn, who knows the importance of Little Box of Sunshine very well.
“I was a cancer survivor as a kid. … I was in the hospital throughout a six-month period a few weeks at a time. I had my left kidney removed and would be back in for chemo treatments. … For me, I remember people delivering items. My dad’s work delivered a box. … I know how much these boxes make an impact on kids,” she said. “I did know people who had passed away while I was there. I know people who had been in the hospital for years. … Those kids (in the hospital) deserve this opportunity to know that they are loved. Even though these guys can’t be with them, they are thinking about them and praying for them.”
In January, two students Addison and Carson Schroer joined the Little Box of Sunshine board after volunteering at other Little Box of Sunshine events and activities. Addison first heard Hennon speak at her school, St. Martins Catholic School, about Little Box of Sunshine and knew she wanted to get involved. Since joining the board, eighth grader Addison has held a toy drive where students could donate gently used and new items, and organized and co-hosted the Girls Night Out event for fellow middle-schoolers.
“I think God put us on the world to help others, and that is what I want to do as much as I can. I love seeing someone smile because what I did or a group of us did. Seeing someone that might not be as happy in the hospital smile, bringing them joy is just a reward for us,” Addison said.
Rewards also come from fundraisers organized to raise money for Little Box of Sunshine. In September 2016, Little Box of Sunshine partnered in the annual golf tournament hosted by Miracles for Margaret, a charitable cause supporting Romph. Now co-sponsoring the event for two years, the organizations have raised $12,000 total, splitting proceeds 50-50 and presenting a $1,000 scholarship to a young Jefferson City man who is going to EMT school. Hennon and Romph would like to expand scholarship opportunities for area school students in the future.
Last year, the same two organizations co-hosted the inaugural Little Box of Sunshine 5K Walk, Run and Roll, which is open to anyone, including individuals in wheelchairs, along the Jefferson City Greenway Trail off West Edgewood Drive. Despite rainy conditions, 123 finishers participated and each organization earned $400. This year’s event is set for 9 a.m. April 28 at the same location.
“My biggest goal for the 5K was to get more rollers. We had people registered last year but they couldn’t come because of the heavy rain. The other people, we love having them, but the rolling part is what makes our 5K different,” Hennon said.
Other generous contributions have come from donations to a memorial set up in honor of Hennon’s late grandfather, a recent Chick-fil-A fundraiser and continued toy drives, T-shirt sales and other individual monetary contributions and purchases through AmazonSmile.
Hennon has seen not only the community step up to support Little Box of Sunshine but also her peers. Through box assemblies organized around events like Schroer’s Girls Night Out or a service opportunity during Catholic Schools Week, the students have been eager to get involved.
“We are having a drive right now where students can bring in toys or items. This little girl came up to me and said, ‘I have this giraffe and I don’t want it anymore so I’m going to give it to Little Box of Sunshine.’ … She set it down in the box and said, ‘I’m going to miss that giraffe,’” Schroer said with a smile. “That was so sweet. Knowing other little kids at that age want to help other little kids is so awesome.”
Hennon, Schroer and fellow volunteers put just as much thought and care into what goes in each box as that little kindergartner contributing her beloved giraffe. Shopping for items is often one of their favorite activities with the organization. Outside of the many items they receive, they watch sales at Walmart, Five Below and on Oriental Trading Company, or raid the dollar sections of Target. Every once and awhile they get a request to create a “big box of sunshine” for a specific patient like Lizzy Wampler of Columbia, whose classmate’s mother contacted Hennon through the organization’s Facebook page.
“I looked her up on Facebook and saw what she looked like and I told this lady … to get some ideas from her classmates of what she would like. We ended up with a big list of ideas and this cute little girl’s face, so we went to Target and were like, ‘We are getting everything,’” Hennon said with a laugh.
Typically the boxes are not personalized, but these shopping experiences and the attention the kids put into assembling them with themes make each box special.
“We’ll flip through all the handmade cards and pick out the perfect one. All the boxes are not personalized, but they have a personality to them,” Schroer said.
“And I believe the kid with that personality is going to get that box,” Hennon added.
Other students fully committed to the organization, getting hooked to the cause it represents. Sixteen-year-old Helias sophomore Molly Bruns is one of those volunteers. After the first summer the organization started, Bruns became more involved with Little Box of Sunshine, assembling boxes in the fall of 2016. She has helped during the first 5K, ran out to purchase 145 bananas at Walmart for that event and delivered boxes to the Indianapolis hospital during the National Catholic Youth Conference, to name a few.
“When you’re building boxes you know it is going to a great place to help kids. You get there and it hits you there are kids here that will benefit from this,” she said. “It is a great opportunity, especially when you get to help a great organization run by a young girl just like you. It is inspiring.”
For Hennon, encouraging children to help children is at the core of Little Box of Sunshine. Whether it is assembling a box, donating a toy or simply committing a random act of kindness for someone else, she knows how impactful it can be. She saw it at the Girls Night Out event, she sees it at the area schools she attends and visits, and she sees it every time she delivers a box to a children’s hospital.
“It is not adults giving them something. It is from someone their age thinking about them. It makes it more special,” she said. “You don’t have to make a big difference either. When I talk to schools like St. Martins, I say, ‘When you are walking out of the gym this morning, hold the door for the person behind you; that will make them smile.’ That is making a difference, too.”
Donations of time and talent:
• Cards handmade by children are included in each box and always needed. Donated cards should be encouraging with sayings such as “Get Well Soon” or “Thinking of You.” They should also include the first name and age of the child who made the card.
• Second Annual Little Box of Sunshine 5K Walk, Run and Roll is a great way to raise funds for Little Box of Sunshine. It will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 28 at Jefferson City Greenway Trail along West Edgewood Drive in Jefferson City. Early bird registration is $25 per person, with registration after April 14 $30 per person. For more information or to register, email Olivia Hennon at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit facebook.com/littleboxofsunshine or http://littleboxofsunshine.weebly.com.
Donations of Treasure:
Books Coloring Books Crayons DVDs Gel Pens Kaleidoscopes
Play-Doh Small Puzzles Card Games Fun Socks Stickers Stress Balls
Chapstick Small Figurines Bracelets Window Clings Colorful Pillowcases
Small New Stuffed Animals Other Small Toys And Games