Gresham: Sending love in a box
Few truly understand the fear and loneliness a child faces when they go into the foster care system.
State officials make decisions quickly when it comes to removing children from dangerous situations, so kids don't have time to pack a bag or grab a favorite stuffed animal. When they enter the foster system, it is without any possessions aside from the clothes on their back.
That is what Lyndsee Wunn saw while working as a pediatric nurse.
"A lot know what foster care is, but most truly don't understand what it is like to see a child in a hospital with nothing," Wunn said. "It's not roses and rainbows — its traumatic."
Wunn and her husband have seen many sides of that trauma, after they became foster parents nine years ago. Their foster baby was 5 weeks old and going through withdrawal because his mother had used drugs while pregnant. The couple fostered him for two years before adopting the child.
And although they let their foster parent certification decay, Wunn couldn't shake the image of other kids whose worlds had been flipped upside down. She knew she had more to offer.
"I didn't want that to be the end of my story with foster care," she said.
So Wunn started putting together boxes filled with love.
"It is about a sense of dignity, showing these kids that they matter and are loved," she said.
In 2014 Wunn launched Boxes of Love, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving foster children something tangible as they go to new families. Each box is stuffed with new clothing, pajamas, shoes, and other comfort items the children can call their own. It is a mix of practical and fun that removes much of the stress around those first few weeks in a strange home.
"It's all about tangible things, everything is new," Wunn said. "For some of the kids, this is the first new stuff they have ever received."
The group gives boxes to children ages 0-18, actively choosing to work with teenagers because often other groups solely focus on younger kids. Boxes of Love finds the foster families through partnerships with six Oregon hospitals, and the boxes are shipped all across the state.
In total, the nonprofit organization has delivered 650 boxes, averaging about 120 a year, with each box valued at about $500. The box also provides a security, as the nonprofit organization asks parents to send the boxes with the kids if they move to a new family.
Finding a home
When Wunn first launched Boxes of Love, it was out of her bedroom.
But things started to grow quickly, and donations poured in, so the work spilled into her garage and threatened to take over the whole house. Wunn knew she had to find a larger space to keep growing the nonprofit organization.
So she reached out to East Multnomah County churches with little luck, until Trinity Lutheran Church offered a space in an empty classroom.
"It was wonderful to have that room, and Trinity Lutheran were so supportive," Wunn said.
As Boxes of Love physically expanded, so did the number of children it was serving. Every year more and more boxes were being sent out. While Wunn leads the way as executive director and founder, it was the dedicated volunteers who ignited the explosion of growth. They helped purchase items, pack the boxes and even drove as far as Salem for deliveries.
"I couldn't have done any of this without my volunteers," Wunn said. "They have made all the difference."
Eventually, Boxes of Love needed to find another space. While the room at Trinity Lutheran had been a blessing, Wunn wanted a more forward-facing location to better connect with the community. While donations were coming in, many didn't realize Boxes of Love was stationed in Gresham.
Last fall the group moved into a brick and mortar location in downtown Gresham, renting part of the former Gresham Eagle's club at Northeast Second Street and Northeast Roberts Avenue. The new location, with a logo on the door, has already begun spreading awareness.
One afternoon Pediatric Therapy Services reached out wanting to support Boxes of Love — hosting a donation drive with the families who visit the clinic. Pediatric Therapy Services has continued to host "item of the month" donations.
"This is what happens when people in the community come together to meet a need," Wunn said. "It is mind-blowing how far-reaching the love has been."
One unexpected development has been how impactful the boxes have been on foster parents. Wunn knows firsthand how stressful that first week can be. There are court dates, trips to the doctor, and visits from case workers. All of that is on top of foster parents trying to connect with a new child living in their home.
But Boxes of Love helps lift some of that pressure, filling in the gaps.
"You don't have time to go out and buy everything you need," Wunn said. "Having the box might save a panicked trip to Target and removes a little of the stress off foster parents."
In recent years, Wunn has begun adding a few things for parents. She writes them a note, and a partnership with Black Rock Coffee provides a gift card for some much needed caffeine.
"We've had foster parents reach out to tell us how much getting a Box of Love means to them and the kids," Wunn said.
Boxes of Love has been uplifted by grassroots support. The organization has no large sponsors — though Wunn would love to partner with bigger businesses to help fill the boxes. Instead, it is many across the community who help fill the boxes, often through fun events. Church groups run donation drives, Boy and Girl Scouts knock on doors, Gresham kids ask for birthday presents to be donated, and others hold baby showers for foster kids.
"This is a community that loves these kids, and we know they aren't defined by their circumstances," Wunn said. "Everyone who helps fill a Box of Love is making a difference for a kiddo."
And the future is bright for the organization, which plans to stay rooted in Gresham "for a long time." Boxes of Love is nearing two more partnerships with local hospitals, and more volunteers have reached out looking to help.
"My dream is to give a box to every kid going into foster care in Oregon," Wunn said.
What's in the box?
It is amazing how much the volunteers at Boxes of Love are able to fit into the packages being sent to foster children across the state.
The infant boxes have clothes for the first two years, with room to grow. There are also blankets; stuffed animals; baby wash, shampoo and lotion; baby towels; diapers and wipes; bibs; burp cloths; bottles and pacifiers; books and more.
The boxes for older children are more customized, with volunteers working with foster parents to find items that will be used and worn. There are clothes in multiple sizes to account for growth, as well as other age-appropriate items. That includes blankets; stuffed animals; toiletries; backpack; water bottle; coat; books; hair accessories, coloring books, stickers, crafts, toys; and more.
Support Gresham's Boxes of Love and foster kids across Oregon by visiting boxesofloveproject.org/donate
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