On any given day, there could be 20+ children at a Christmas Box house—an emergency shelter for kids who need it the most. These children may be experiencing abuse or neglect, or they may even be entangled in human trafficking or facing homelessness. When the worst happens, they need a place to stay, often last minute, often in the middle of the night. A Christmas Box house is a soft place for them to land.
Serving Children for 25 Years
Nearly 25 years ago, the three Christmas Box Houses, located in Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Moab, Utah, didn’t exist. And that gap was glaringly obvious.
The houses were built by the nonprofit The Christmas Box International, started by author Richard Paul Evans and his wife. With the success of his book The Christmas Box, published in 1994 and quickly a bestseller, he wanted to give back to his community. His book is about the true meaning of Christmas and how the time spent between parents and children can never be replaced. Finding a way to help families, specifically children, would be the focus of the new nonprofit.
Evans and his wife sought the advice of those who already worked in the system helping at-risk children. They wondered, what is missing that these children need the most? The answer was this:
“At-risk children had no place to go,” says Celeste Edmunds, executive director of The Christmas Box International. “They needed an emergency place to stay while they could buy time, either to go back to family or be placed in foster care.”
The foster care system was (and still is) overloaded, and last-minute placements are especially challenging. Many times, sibling groups would be likely to be split up, adding to the trauma.
This fact hit especially close to home for Edmunds, who grew up in foster care. She remembers how hard it was for her life to be turned upside down in an instant.
“By far, ten times harder than losing my parents was losing my siblings,” she recalls. That initial separation from siblings continued as she bounced around to many different homes. Thankfully, in her teens, a friend’s family took her in and helped her forge a new path, even officially adopting her in her 20s after she had started a family of her own.
Around that time, Edmunds met Evans and starting working as his personal assistant when his book took off. And as he made plans to start his nonprofit, Edmunds was instrumental in giving a personal perspective into what at-risk children need in time of crisis.
“Every Child Deserves a Childhood“
There is a lot of uncertainty when children are quickly placed somewhere. They may end up being uprooted again soon after, which adds to the trauma, or placed in a less-than-ideal situation that can have lasting impact. That’s where The Christmas Box International comes in. It partners with local, national, and international groups to help children have a safe place to go during emergencies.
At a Christmas Box house, children range in age from newborn to 18 years. Most children and teens stay from two to four weeks while permanent living arrangements can be determined by caseworkers. According to Edmunds, about half of the children who stay are able to return home; others are placed in kinship (relatives) care, and others in foster care. In the meantime, staying at the shelter will hopefully be the best possible solution during a hard time.
Before constructing or renovating the homes, The Christmas Box International sought the advice of experts to make the homes as comfortable as possible for the children. After completion, they turned them over to the state, which operates the homes and oversees the day-to-day care of the children.
The Christmas Box International fills in the gaps of what the state isn’t able to provide—gaps like throwing a last-minute root beer float party for a 15-year-old boy who was taken from his home on his birthday.
“A shelter is not where he wants to be, but it was the least we could do,” Edmunds says. That directly fulfils the nonprofit’s mission: “Every child deserves a childhood.”
She adds that they constantly ask caseworkers and others involved what they need. The Christmas Box International fundraises and partners with those who can fill those needs. For example, it pulls in resources like dental, well-child visits, a library, transitional therapy, play therapy, music therapy, and anything else the children might need.
Aside from the three houses, The Christmas Box International also oversees 11 Resource Rooms across Utah. These are satellite locations where supplies like diapers or clothing can be accessed quickly in communities that are far from the shelters. The nonprofit also helps older youth who are transitioning from foster care into adulthood and may be facing homelessness.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for at-risk children and teens. Whether they are at-risk of removal or already staying at a Christmas Box house, their Christmas may not feel very merry. The Christmas Box International raises money and collects gifts from generous donors looking to help these children have a bright Christmas morning.
To donate funds or items, visit the Project Elf page on the nonprofit’s website. In a typical year, donations are able to provide gifts for about 2,500 children and teens.
Edmunds watches as many of these children come into The Christmas Box homes, and it’s a grim reminder of her past. But with her experience, she’s able to connect with them as she knows what they’re going through.
“So much is taken from them. They are hurt. For the children ages 7 to 9, I immediately connect because that’s how old I was when I went into foster care. I can relate to them.”
While everyone’s hope is to never need an emergency shelter, Edmunds and the thousands of children who have stayed in Christmas Box homes or benefited from its resources or programs are thankful that the shelters exist. They operate thanks to so many who believe in their mission of providing safety during their most vulnerable times, and to date, they have served more than 125,000 children.
“It really does take a village to raise a child,” she says. “We partner with the system to really rally around these kids.”
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