In 2008, Emily Lites was delighted to welcome the birth of her brother, Jude. He was her first and only sibling. Jude had suffered a massive bilateral stroke in utero but seemed fine when he greeted this world. Things changed about three months later, however, when he began having seizures. Ultimately, Jude suffered from epilepsy, cerebral palsy, scoliosis, and blindness.
Emily all too often found herself in hospital waiting rooms with her family to support sweet Jude. Just nine years old, she felt these places were very boring, upsetting, and even scary. Surely other children must feel the same way. Emily had an idea and asked her mother if she could do something to make both hospital stays and hospital waits a little easier for the many other kids in similar situations. Emily came up with the idea of filling shoebox-sized boxes with small toys and activity items, such as coloring books and crayons, stuffed animals, card games, stickers, and more. She made sure not to include edible items, nor any that could be choking hazards. The boxes would give both hospital patients and their waiting room siblings something to do — and something to smile about. With that idea, Emily’s Smile Boxes was born.
Emily’s first delivery contained 12 smile boxes carried in a small red wagon to Medical City in Dallas, where her brother had been treated. She put together the boxes herself, including decorating them with her artistry. Eventually, a cheerful sun and colorful rainbow became part of their logo. Soon, Emily’s friends and family pitched in, and it grew into a community effort. With her determination, perseverance, and desire to spread some joy into even more children’s lives, Emily’s Smile Boxes became a nonprofit organization.
From that first delivery to Medical City, Emily expanded her distribution to hospitals such as Cook Children’s, Scottish Rite, and a host of others.
“Ironically, until I was 15 years old, I wasn’t able to visit children in these hospitals,” Emily reflected. “Instead, I would leave the smile boxes at the front desk or nurses’ station for hospital personnel to deliver.”
Assembling these thoughtful boxes eventually transitioned into Smile Box making parties. These are hosted events where groups get together to decorate and fill the boxes while enjoying each other’s company, refreshments, and knowing that collectively they are putting smiles on children’s faces. When a company, organization, neighborhood, or group commits to helping, representatives from Emily’s Smile Boxes send them boxes, logos, and everything they need to build the complete smile box. Many groups assemble 250 to 400 boxes during these parties!
One box costs about $10, so the organization raises donations through GoFundMe, individuals and businesses, and sponsored events such as carnivals, casino nights, car washes, holiday-related affairs, 5K runs, and more.
“These events are oriented around the importance of community service while having fun,” Emily said. “There have been schools, churches, businesses, girl and boy scout troops, and others that hold their own Emily’s Smile Box events. At these events, you can find activities like face painting and bounce houses.”
Her desire to help children is so intense that when she was 11, Emily entered a pageant after hearing that the prize was a $1,000 giveaway to a nonprofit of the winner’s choice. She won and added the winnings to Emily’s Smile Boxes.
Sadly, Emily lost her brother Jude in 2016, when he was 7 years, 7 months, and 7 days old. Emily’s good deeds continued, with the added objective of honoring Jude’s memory.
Fast forward to today. Emily graduated from the University of Alabama this winter with a degree in psychology and plans to continue her education in hopes of becoming a physician’s assistant.
“My love for the medical community came from spending so much time around hospital staff and with Jude’s nurses, who were angels to my family,” Emily explained.
Emily’s Smile Boxes has grown by leaps and bounds. Emily and many volunteers still deliver boxes to hospitals and send them to homes, too. They have distributed over 22,000 boxes to every state in the U.S., Canada, and Jamaica. Their efforts have raised over half a million dollars, with no intention of stopping.
There’s no denying that Emily’s Smile Boxes have brightened the hospital stays of many children since 2008.
“I want to get the next generation involved in giving,” Emily said. “Always remember that one person can make a difference!”
To find out more, please visit, www.EmilysSmileBoxes.com.
photos courtesy of Jennifer Ortiz and Social Media Page