Sharon Howard starts Highland chapter of Bonnie Boxes: Boxes of Love for Cancer Warriors

In Highland last weekend, local volunteers pack and wrap Bonnie Boxes, which will be delivered to the oncology unit of HealthAlliance in Kingston. Pictured left to right are: Delaney Dapp-Eichner, Carly Wells, Danielle Dapp, Maisy Dapp-Eichner and Britney Hanlon. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

In Highland last weekend, local volunteers pack and wrap Bonnie Boxes, which will be delivered to the oncology unit of HealthAlliance in Kingston. Pictured left to right are: Delaney Dapp-Eichner, Carly Wells, Danielle Dapp, Maisy Dapp-Eichner and Britney Hanlon. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

A “wrap-and-pack” event might sound like a sedate affair, with the only sounds being the crinkle of tape and paper. The reality is more like a mashup of an assembly line, a kids’ birthday party and what goes on late at night on Christmas Eve in certain households. This chaotic cacophony clearly has a purpose, which can be seen in the results: stacks and stacks of colorfully-wrapped boxes, filled with items designed to bring a little joy and distraction to people receiving chemotherapy treatments in Kingston.

The first Bonnie Boxes wrap-and-pack event for the Highland chapter took place last Saturday at Leyla Cadabal Photography in Highland. And event organizer Sharon Howard zipped around the room so quickly it felt like she was everywhere at once. On one side she was overseeing a group of women who are gift-wrapping boxes in the manner often used on television shows, with the top wrapped separately so it can be opened without removing the paper. “There’s a YouTube video we watched to learn how to do that,” she explains. Along two walls were tables loaded with bins containing a wide variety of items that are small enough to fit in a shoebox and donated by local businesses and individuals to be packed in the boxes. They include baggies of hard candies, salty snacks, puzzle books, small stuffed animals, card games, handmade jewelry and bookmarks with inspirational sayings and hand-crocheted socks and hats. Howard directed two young girls through the process of packing a box. “Each one gets a hat, a stuffed animal, and things to help pass the time during treatment,” she explains. Meanwhile, she also keeps an eye on the inventory of items, and directed her husband and children in replacing the stock and moving the packed boxes out to the car.

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Chemotherapy is not only difficult because of the powerful side effects, but because each treatment can take up to several hours, during which the patient must remain relatively still. Bonnie Boxes: Boxes of Love for Cancer Warriors was started by Wassaic resident and cancer survivor Cindy Snow to ease that burden. Snow was inspired herself by a friend named Bonnie Rotker Acker, whose son organized drives to collect socks for chemotherapy patients. The first boxes Snow assembled — when she was herself still undergoing treatment — were given anonymously to patients who were alone during the long treatment sessions. When Acker died, Snow named the project Bonnie Boxes after her, and interest quickly grew. There’s now more than a dozen New York chapters of the movement and a few in other states, as well.

Howard lost her mother to cancer four years ago, and has channeled her feelings into creating the Highland chapter. “I wanted something to give back to the community,” she says and to help promote better values in her family. “I have three boys, and I want them to know there’s more than video games. Family comes first.”

Through her connections in the community — she’s not only a mom, she also works in the schools — Howard has leveraged a platoon of adults and children to obtain donations, organize them and get the people into position for the joyful chaos of this wrap-and-pack party. Girl Scout troops, the entire seventh-grade class and a slew of mothers and fathers have been part of the solution. In addition to organized donation drives, Howard has secured spots for donation bins in several Highland businesses, including Bagels & Bites, Main Street Deli and the Hannaford supermarket. “We’re trying for 50 boxes,” she says of this event, “but we’re hoping for more.” Some of the items were piled high last Saturday, but she predicts the number of boxes they will be able to pack will be limited by the number of hats people have made for the cause. Even in the summer, a chemotherapy patient appreciates the warmth and comfort of a soft, handmade hat.

Some Bonnie Boxes chapters will mail out a box to a particular cancer patient upon request, and that’s something that Howard expects to do more of, as well. “We got a request for a box for a three-year-old with eye cancer,” she said, and was happy to fill it. The oncology unit at HealthAlliance in Kingston does not have a pediatric ward, so this chapter is more focused on boxes for adults, but Howard understands the differences. “For young children, you want to ask about their favorite colors,” she said, and otherwise try to cater to their preferences.

As for wrapping and packing, the production seems to be going well, and Howard is not talking about it like it’s a one-off. “I plan on doing this until I can’t anymore, or people tell me they’re tired of hearing from me,” she said. “I’ve had to learn how to ask people for things, which I wasn’t good at doing.” Based on the amount of items donated, and the number of people packing them up, she’s gotten better.

Bonnie Boxes accepts a wide variety of items for donation, including fun things like bubbles and refrigerator magnets, grooming items and products for men and women, packaged food items and stuffed animals small enough to fit in a shoe box, and handmade socks and hats.

Howard can be reached by phone with questions at 845-706-5900, via e-mail at sgenest73@yahoo.com or through the chapter’s Facebook page, facebook.com/BonnieBoxes.Highland.NY. She noted that they are particularly looking for volunteers in the Kingston area, to make an even bigger impact on the patients of the oncology unit of HealthAlliance. The next wrap-and-pack event is likely to be held in the autumn. “I’ll give everyone the summer off,” Howard says, “then I’ll hit them up again.”

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