Something stands out when Olivia Hennon talks about Little Box of Sunshine, the award-winning not-for-profit charity she founded three years ago.
She keeps saying “we.”
“We raise the money and buy all the supplies for the boxes and then work with groups of students in the area to put the boxes together,” said Miss Hennon, a junior at Helias Catholic High School and member of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City.
“Then we put in a piece of paper that tells the story of Little Box of Sunshine and a card made by a child in the area, and we take the boxes to hospitals.”
With lots of help, mostly from young people, the organization has filled and delivered more than 1,200 sunshine-colored little containers of books, toys and other items to children in hospitals in 11 states.
“Last summer, we delivered over 300 boxes in the Northeast,” said Miss Hennon. “We went to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.”
“This summer, we plan on going to Oklahoma, Texas and to Chicago,” she said.
“An extraordinary heart”
Those little boxes are getting to be a big deal.
During Catholic Schools Week this year, the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) selected Miss Hennon from more than 1.8 million Catholic school students across the country to receive a Youth Virtues, Valor and Vision Award.
The honor is given to 10 students of Catholic high schools each year “who through their selfless service, innovation and commitment to social justice are changing the world.”
Representatives of NCEA and Cross Catholic Outreach (www.crosscatholic.org), which cosponsors the award, presented her a prestigious NCEA Medal of Honor and Certificate during an all-school Mass at Helias.
Each of the award recipients’ ministries was highlighted during the 2019 NCEA Convention & Expo in Chicago.
“Olivia has done remarkable things for someone her age, or any age, through the creation and work of her not-for-profit,” stated Father Stephen Jones, president of Helias Catholic.
“But she also has an extraordinary heart of kindness, spirit of hope and willingness to work hard to help others; which makes her the type of person we should all aspire to be.”
Noticing the need
The inspiration for Little Box of Sunshine came in the summer of 2016, when Miss Hennon’s friend Margaret spent 67 days in the hospital.
While visiting her friend, Miss Hennon noticed how many sick, frightened children were there, many with no one to keep them company.
“I could tell that those who were alone really needed a treat, something to let them know there are people who care about them, who are praying for them and hoping they get better,” she said.
In one afternoon, she came up with the idea of sending sunshine-colored boxes of cheerful items to children in hospitals, especially those who are lonely or afraid.
Light in the darkness
Each box includes a plush toy, crayons, a coloring book, a colorful pillowcase, Play-doh, and a handmade card.
Originally, Miss Hennon wanted everything in the box to be yellow — the color of sunshine.
“It was a cute idea. Everyone we talked to loved it,” she said. “But as time went on, we found out it was harder than we thought to do all yellow.”
They found out about hospital regulations when they started making deliveries.
“For instance, we found out you can’t have any food in the boxes,” she said.
Also, nothing in the boxes can have any reference to faith.
“When I first heard that, I thought, ‘How can that even be? How can I shine this light of Christ without mentioning it or even saying I’m praying for you?’” she said.
“That was a big challenge, to try to figure out other ways to shine that light and to show that I can be Christ’s hands and feet without mentioning Him,” she stated.
Free from all anxiety
Miss Hennon and the other volunteers place the items in each box at random. Only God knows which box is going to whom.
“I believe each box goes to a child that needs it,” said Miss Hennon. “God is definitely a part of making sure that happens.”
Sometimes, He lets her know about it.
Each box contains Little Box of Sunshine’s e-mail address, website and Facebook page.
“After we made a delivery this past summer, a mom posted on Facebook and said her child was awaiting surgery at the hospital when a nurse came in with this box,” Miss Hennon recalled.
Something in the box — the toy, the card, or something else — took away the girl’s anxiety about her surgery.
“She turned to her mom and said she’s not scared anymore,” said Miss Hennon.
She believes God also uses Little Boxes of Sunshine to comfort parents and other loved ones.
“I hope that by seeing a kid smile a little or be a little happier today than yesterday, those parents can know that there is hope,” she said.
Off and running
Before Miss Hennon could raise any money, her parents helped her set up a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation and open a separate banking account for it.
That would allow her to buy materials without paying sales tax, and any contributions would be tax-deductible.
She had custom T-shirts screen-printed and sold them to raise start-up money.
She convened a 10-member board of directors, including herself, both of her parents, her aunt, Helias Catholic High School Campus Minister Maureen Queen, two fellow students from the school, and three other adults in the community.
With the money they raised, they ordered the boxes and supplies, recruited a group of volunteers at Helias Catholic and assembled about 100 boxes.
They were ready to make their first delivery to four hospitals in St. Louis during Christmastime of 2016.
“We couldn’t even go into the room,” Miss Hennon recalled. “But just setting the boxes at the door and knowing that in the next few hours, 100 kids are going to get these boxes and hopefully they’ll love what’s in them, and maybe they’ll smile a bit was a great, great gift.”
The following April, she and her friends organized their first fundraiser 5K run.
“We had about 100 participants, and it fell on the rainiest day of 2017,” she said.
The runners were a little apprehensive about getting wet, but once they got started, everyone had a great time.
This year’s event drew 130 runners to run in the sun, raising $2,500.
Purses with a Purpose
This past November, Little Box of Sunshine held its first annual Purses for a Purpose Auction.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Miss Hennon. “My aunt suggested it. She had been to one and thought it would be a good idea.”
They raised about $11,000, which will go toward deliveries this summer.
“Fundraising during the school year and delivering in the summer when I’m off has become the secret formula,” she said.
She acknowledged that fundraising and organizing while taking high school junior-level classes has been a challenge.
“But it has been totally manageable with help of our board of directors,” she said. “School has been so understanding and helpful. ‘What can we do to help?’ That kind of thing.”
Little Box of Sunshine has recruited several student groups at Helias Catholic to help fill the boxes.
“We run it like an assembly line,” she said. “You start with an empty box and then add one thing along the line.”
“Totally worth it”
Miss Hennon has had to make some sacrifices, such as going out with friends on weekends or having a part-time job.
“There are things that have to come before things I want to do,” she stated.
That’s where her friends come in.
“A lot of great friends will say, ‘Since you can’t go out with us, how can we help? What can we do? Do you need anything?’” she said.
Besides, she is convinced that this is what God wants her to invest her time and energy in.
“It’s totally worth it,” she said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Become like children
Miss Hennon looks forward to staying busy with Little Box of Sunshine this summer, through her senior year and into college.
She’s thinking about pursuing a career that allows her to help children — maybe in a hospital or clinical setting, such as pediatric occupational or physical therapy.
She recognizes God in children.
“Their hopefulness, their wishful eyes, their enthusiasm about the little things — it’s all very contagious,” she said. “I think by surrounding myself with that kind of enthusiasm and positivity, I can absorb that and show it to others — that everyone can be that happy like a child.”
Her greatest heroes are children and their families in the hospitals.
“Before bed, I think about how their day was, or if a child got a box today, or how this family who reached out to me and said thank you, how they’re doing now,” she said.
What you do for them ...
Miss Hennon asks for prayers for wisdom and guidance as the next couple of years of her life unfold.
Most of all, she wants to continue following Christ.
“I grew up with that at home and it was instilled in me at Immaculate Conception School and definitely renewed and strengthened when I got here to Helias,” she said.
She chose St. Mother Theresa as her confirmation name this year.
“I chose to honor her because of her caring for the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable in our society,” she said.
That’s something she wants to share with the people she will meet in college, who will likely be different from many of her friends at Helias.
“It’s great to be able to surround yourself with people every day who for most part have the same values and beliefs you have,” she said. “Nothing can strengthen your relationship more than that.”
Visit Little Box of Sunshine on Facebook or online at http://littleboxofsunshine.weebly.com.