It was early 2017, and Steve Bostian, head of the Box of Joy outreach, had traveled to the outskirts of the Dominican Republic to deliver thousands of Christmas boxes stuffed with toys, gifts, and the gospel message to underprivileged children.
On this particular day, he was participating in the ministry's Day of Joy event, sitting in a small room filled with children eager to open the only Christmas gift they'd likely receive all year, when a small boy caught his eye.
"This little boy was waiting for his present, grinning ear to ear," Bostian told The Gospel Herald. "But what made his grin stand out was the fact that his face had been completely burned, top to bottom. He had no lips, his nose was almost gone, his ears were melted off, and he had no eyebrows or eyelashes. But, he was grinning widely, not taking his eyes off the local priest as he prayed and delivered a message before handing out the gifts."
A few years earlier, 8-year-old Libio had accidentally turned over a gas lantern on his head while his mother was away at work, burning his little body beyond recognition.
"His mother lifted up his shirt and showed me where his entire chest was scarred; he had suffered excruciating pain," Bostian said. "Any child would be traumatized, but to suffer that in the midst of abject poverty, I can't imagine what he went through with limited medical resources."
But today, Libio's suffering was little more than an afterthought. The little boy stood patiently in line, and when he received his Box of Joy, he excitedly tore open the packaging.
"His whole face just lit up," Bostian recalled. "Almost taking up the entire box, right under the story of Jesus, was this giant Nerf football. I had the privilege of tossing the football with him for ten minutes, and he was laughing and having the best time."
"I realized, even if just for today, Libio got to be a normal boy who received his first football," he continued. "All of his problems melted away. It was a real blessing to experience."
Libio is just one of thousands of impoverished children blessed by Box of Joy, now in its fourth year, a ministry dedicated to bringing smiles of joy to the faces of children all over the world.
This year, the ministry, an initiative of Cross Catholic Outreach, will send Christmas to a record number of children mired in poverty in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
"There are millions of children that are dealing with the daily grind of poverty, and this is an opportunity to allow them to be a kid and enjoy the Christmas blessings that all of us take for granted," Bostian said.
The idea is simple: schools and church groups nationwide organize Box of Joy events, packing the boxes with small gifts like toys, dolls and racecars, and adding essentials like soap, pencils, toothpaste and toothbrushes, as well as a few treats like hard candy and coloring books.
Participants include $9 in each box to cover shipment from the local Drop-off Center to the child. Boxes are then dropped off during Box of Joy Week, November 4 to 12. Those who miss that window are able to ship their gifts directly to the National Screening Center in Miami - just postmark your gift by Christmas Eve.
"Everything your child shops for goes right to the child of their choosing," Bostian said. "It's a personalized gift; we don't split it up. We honor that specific gift that was chosen. It's also a tool for child evangelism, because we include a Jesus coloring book and work with local ministries to share the gospel with children on the receiving end of these gifts."
Cross Catholic Outreach piloted the Box of Joy ministry in 2014 with just two dioceses participating - and it's grown rapidly ever since. Last year, across 48 states, 315 churches, schools and groups--working from 73 drop-off centers--created and sent gift-filled boxes to some 31,712 children in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. This year adds Nicaragua, and the smile goal is 60,000 kids.
"It's a great way for families to teach their children about giving and poverty and how to have compassionate and generous hearts," Bostian said. "It gives them something tangible to do rather than just writing a check. It's a great way to show love to children in dire need."
To learn more on how to engage your family in reaching needy children through Box of Joy, please visit CrossCatholic.org/BoxofJoy.