Boxes are used for lots of things. They protect products on their journey from warehouses to retail shelves. They keep your possessions safe when you’re moving houses. And they organize and protect things when you put them into storage.

Boxes clearly do a lot for us. But they can do a lot for others too. Shoeboxes, mostly used to keep shoes clean and new until you use them, can find new life elsewhere. In the past few years, they’ve found themselves at the center of an effort meant to help those in need.

That effort has become known as shoebox charities.

What exactly is that?

Shoebox charities began with a small group of women. They wanted a way to help other women who were in at-risk situations or living in shelters. They’d pack shoeboxes with items the women would enjoy or need, but likely wouldn’t buy for themselves in difficult times.

The boxes were filled with basic toiletries and extras like makeup and brushes. They were meant to give comfort and confidence. They helped to remind the women that they were human and valuable, worthy of attention and a happy life, and that they were not alone.

What began as a small project has grown over time into a full-fledged movement. It’s spread all over the world and now covers a wide range of groups in need. The charities now help out at-risk and homeless teens, children in homes, low-income families, special needs babies, and soldiers abroad.

Shoebox charities are supported by donations and sponsorships. Volunteers collect the donations and pack the shoeboxes. Even the actual delivering of the boxes (or the shipping costs) is handled by the volunteers. Donations are collected year-round, and the shoeboxes are handed out at certain times and during specific holidays (like Christmas, Mother’s Day and Easter).

What does it involve?

Shoeboxes are filled with the items their receiver would really enjoy. A mix of essential and luxury items are included to help make them feel cared for and entertained.

Adults often receive hygiene products and toiletries. If they’re in colder climates, mittens, scarves and hats are included too. Candies and gift cards often round out their shoebox.

Teens (in addition to the essentials) appreciate hats and gloves, multi-vitamins, journals with pens, and books. Gift cards for coffee or fast food are also recommended.

Kids love to find school supplies and toys in their shoeboxes, along with the needed basics.

Soldiers are always thankful for anything they receive. Items like magazines, movies, candy and card games are a strong reminder that everyone at home is thinking about them.

Personal notes of support are encouraged, no matter who the shoebox is for. Including a blank card for them to write on in return is also welcomed. Receiving a shoebox doesn’t have to be the end of communication.

Many places are now using special mailing boxes to protect the gifts. They’re kept roughly the same size as shoeboxes, but are made of corrugate to keep everything safe inside. They’re also better for decorating and customizing for whoever is receiving it. During Christmas, the gifts are often packed into a stocking, which is then put back into the shoebox.

How can we all help out?

Contributing to shoebox charities can be as simple or as involved as you’d like.

Donate money
Money is one of the easiest ways to help with shoeboxes. If you’re unsure what to buy, volunteers already know the best ways to use your contribution. Shipping charges are also one of the most expensive parts of the charity, and anything you offer helps ease the costs of delivery.

Donate items and gifts
Giving the items and gifts needed to fill boxes is a great way to help out. Toiletries for adults and toys for kids are a good place to start. Just remember to check what the charity can accept. Some countries and areas have regulations about what can be shipped through the mail.

Donate time
As a volunteer, you can use monetary donations to purchase the items needed most. You can help sort gifts and pack boxes. You can even hand deliver shoeboxes or provide the delivery vehicles needed to ship them out.

It’s no wonder why the shoebox movement has grown into such a phenomenon. It’s a worthwhile cause that’s easy to contribute to and has heart-warming results. When you contribute to a shoebox, or create one yourself, you aren’t just giving a gift. You’re keeping hands warm and feet dry on cold nights. You’re helping someone feel less alone in the world. You’re giving someone back their dignity.