The Box Project’s Origin Story: The Shadow of Rural Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi

Since 1962, The Box Project has worked to change the lives of families living in one of the most impoverished regions in America–the Mississippi Delta.

The Box Project Program originated as an idea on a plane to the Geneva Peace Council among three prominent female activists–Virginia Naeve of Vermont/New Hampshire (Founder), Clarie Collins Harvey of Jackson, MS, and Coretta Scott King of Atlanta, GA–that became a piece of hopeful evidence amidst the Civil Rights Movement in the South that, despite their differences, people can come together to create a better tomorrow for the betterment of humanity. And that is exactly what The Box Project Program showed.

So, why call it “The Box Project”?

Virginia Naeve (Founder) got the idea for the name “Box Project” after witnessing a growing pile of donation boxes in her living room full of food, clothes, and other basic need items that people had sent in response to ads printed in their local newspapers. Thanks to Coretta Scott King, the Box Project gained national publicity and Virginia was able to recruit sponsors from all over the country to join her mission to improve the poor living conditions of families in small rural communities along the Mississippi River.

The Box Project was officially incorporated in 1962. The image to the right captures the purpose of the organization since its inception.

Since then, a multitude of witnesses have seen The Box Project’s impact on families living in one of the most impoverished regions in America–the Mississippi Delta.

The Mississippi Delta Region

The region known as the Mississippi Delta is historically one of the poorest in America. In fact, it has gathered national attention for its high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and poor living conditions, especially among those of color. Unfortunately, this remains the reality in 2024. Despite political and cultural shifts as well as community efforts to uplift this region, the cycle of poverty consists of generational financial disadvantages stemming from a number of factors, including low income employment opportunities, low rates of educational attainment, and limited access to government resources, making sponsors and volunteers even more vital in determining the future of the Delta and The Box Project.

The Box Project’s First Recipient Families

In 2009, the Box Project became an official 501(c)(3) program of The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, offering a unique way to give back. This action brought The Box Project’s headquarters back to its roots. In over 60+ years of service, the Box Project has served approximately 20,000+ families living in rural poverty.

Today, The Box Project’s “Recipient Family Match Program,” continues to connect families in need with people who care in pursuit of its mission to eradicate the cycle of rural poverty in the MS Delta by establishing meaningful relationships, promoting education, and offering material aid.

With the help of our community referral agencies, The Box Project pairs approved Box Project recipients with interested Box Project volunteers, called “sister families“, or “sponsor“, for short. The organic development of the connection between recipient family and sister family is where the magic truly happens.

Once they are connected, sponsors and recipients develop a meaningful relationship based on mutual respect. Sponsors offer friendship and encouragement along with a monthly box of basic-need items. A lot of times, Box Project sponsors are insistent on giving much more than that.

Recipient families returns the generosity and kindness of their sponsor family by writing letters of gratitude and sharing about their family. Some families FaceTime, talk on the phone, and even visit in person! As the families come to know and trust each other, these monthly interactions grow into friendships that last a life-time.

Some of our families have remained friends for over 30 years!

The birth of the Box Project begins with an unassuming conversation between three women traveling to Geneva, Switzerland in 1962 for the 17-nation Disarmament Conference. One of these women–Virginia Naeve, a citizen of Vermont with an uncommon amount of drive–went on to be the founder of the Box Project organization. Coretta Scott King, Civil Rights Activist and wife of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Clarie Collins Harvey, Civil Rights Activist from Jackson, Mississippi, were the only two black women on the plane to Geneva. Their discussions on rural poverty proved to have a far more lasting impression on Naeve than even her trip to speak to U. Thant, the head of the United Nations at the time.

The women spoke about the deplorable condition of the state of Mississippi and the struggles of families trying to survive rural poverty in one of the poorest places in America. Mrs. King actually gave Virginia the name of a specific family she knew needed help, and this family became the very first to receive help from what would later be named “The Box Project.”

The name “The Box Project” comes from Virginia’s seemingly “simple” act of writing letters and sending boxes of materials to families in need, including anything from food and clothing to school supplies and diapers. Soon, neighbors wanted to join her and started sending boxes to Mississippi, helping more and more families in need.

Finally, Virginia had the wonderful idea of matching up families who wanted to help, now referred to as “sponsor families” to families in need, or “recipient families.” And “The Box Project” was born. It was officially incorporated in 1968 and received its 501(c)(3) in 1969. In 1973, The Box Project hired its first Executive Director and made its first widespread debut following an article in Women’s Day magazine.

For a little over a decade, the organization’s success continued. Unfortunately, the “Great Recession” in the late 2000s forced The Box Project’s Board of Directors and Staff to make the tough decision to dissolve The Box Project, Inc. and its 501(c)(3) status. After researching many options to keep The Box Project afloat, the Board of Directors agreed to a partnership with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi. The mission of the Box Project meshed perfectly with the Community Foundation, whose mission to “Connect People Who Care With Causes That Matter” would solve one of the BP’s primary issues–finding new sponsors. This pairing proved a perfect fit, and since 2009, the two have collaborated to serve the Mississippi Delta region.

To this day, the Community Foundation continues to help The Box Project tackle its mission to help those living in rural poverty in a variety of ways. Because of our unique structure and effective work, we have received endorsements from national media personalities and outlets, including Oprah Winfrey on TV, Mike Gallagher’s national radio show, and NPR’s World Vision radio show, as well as others like Parade, Child, Nick Jr., Family Fun, and Parent and Redbook magazines. Since 1962, The Box Project has directly helped more than 15,000 recipient families and continues to match sponsors with new families every few months.

As a testament to the success of The Box Project, we have stories from sponsors and recipients that were matched over 35 years ago. Although the recipient family has broken the cycle of poverty and no longer needs material aid, the friendship remains strong. Despite its decades-long success, the Box Project continues to struggle to gain new sponsors to help our families in need. We need YOUR HELP to keep Virginia’s vision alive.

The Box Project’s mission is to encourage and enrich the lives of families and individuals living in rural poverty by establishing meaningful relationships, promoting education, and offering material aid.

Participating in The Box Project’s “Family Match Program” supports our mission by getting the increasing number of families living in rural poverty the help they need to break the cycle of poverty and build a more secure and promising future for generations to come.