Boxes of Joy help salvage summer for Pittsburgh kids

In 2004, Elsie Hillman spearheaded a program that kept open 16 underfunded pools and rec centers in the City of Pittsburgh.

This year, with resources stretched to the max because of the pandemic, the late philanthropist’s legacy is honored again. Boxes of Joy, filled with educational and fun items for kids, are being distributed to families throughout the area.

“This happened to Pittsburgh before, where the summer was being threatened for the youth of the city,” says Josh Whiteside, executive director of The Education Partnership, one of the organizations participating in the Boxes of Joy program. “Elsie Hillman’s underlying mission was to encourage a fun childhood for local residents. So, it’s very much in the sense of `save our summer,’ just 16 years later. We’re not keeping swimming pools open. We’re doing it by providing kids with things that they need to make sure that their summer is fun and engaging.”

Along with the Education Partnership, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Reading is FUNdamental (RIF) Pittsburgh collaborated to assemble 3,500 boxes filled with books, stamp kits, bouncy balls, sketch pads, story cubes, kites and other objects.

In Pittsburgh, Boxes of Joy will be handed out to delighted kids through RIF partner sites. The rest of the boxes will be delivered by partner schools of The Education Partnership and IU3 in Allegheny County. IU7 will distribute boxes in Westmoreland County.

The project would not have happened without support from a who’s who of Pittsburgh philanthropic organizations, Whiteside says. The Elsie H. Hillman FoundationThe Grable Foundation, The Richard K. Mellon Foundation and The Pittsburgh Foundation all provided funding for Boxes of Joy.

“One of the most enjoyable parts of this process from my end is the overwhelming level of collaboration,” Whiteside says of the project that launched in May. “It’s pretty unique to see funders align themselves very quickly and not get tangled up too much in bureaucracy. It’s not only beneficial to this project, but it’s going to help the children.”

Lisa Johns, vice president, finance, for the Hillman Family Foundations, echoes that sentiment.

“We wanted to join forces with the leading foundations to support underserved children whose summertime activities have been severely impacted due to COVID-19,” she says. “The Boxes of Joy project is an opportunity to provide kids with materials that are fun, that inspire them and provide hands-on learning.”

Whiteside, Jane Werner, the executive director of the Children’s Museum, and Florri Ladov, executive director of RIF Pittsburgh, took great care in coming up with the mix of creative and entertaining items in the Boxes of Joy. While keeping students engaged during the summer has long been a mission of educators, it was especially important this year.

“I think the worst-case scenario would be looking back and thinking the pandemic ruined the normal society we’re used to,” Whiteside says. “But that it also stripped kids of fun and just enjoyment of the summer — that would be the heartbreaker of it all.

“Any action we can take to minimize that aspect of it, to make sure that kids look back and say `That was fun’ or `I had this’ or `I learned how to bounce a moon ball over my house,’ that’s the reaction or even the inspiration we’re going for.”