When Nancy Hayes went Christmas shopping recently, she had more to think about than her four children and five grandchildren. This year, as she has for the past 17 Christmases, Mrs. Hayes combed discount stores and markdown tables in Lexington, Mass., to collect clothing and toys for a needy family in rural Mississippi.
Introduced to Bertha Saffold and her five children through a Connecticut-based charitable organization called The Box Project, Hayes has been sending them monthly boxes of clothing and basic supplies for almost six years, after providing such help to a series of five families since 1969.
``I had done other [charitable] programs,'' Hayes says, ``but this just seemed more personal.''
``Personal'' seems to be the watchword of the 25-year-old Box Project. While families are initially matched up by the organization, they have little contact with the project's small Connecticut office - except for occasional newsletters - once correspondence between the two families has begun.
The families are wholly responsible for keeping up their relationship - primarily through letters. Needy families in Mississippi write with news of their children, often including pictures, and sometimes describing the sorts of supplies they most need.
Helper families around the country respond with letters of their own news, and a monthly box full of clothes, kitchen utensils, curtains - whatever they think will help their ``sister family.''
Joyce Getchell says she and Dorothy Collier, the single mother she has helped for the past year and a half, have become ``very close friends. She even sent me the kids' report cards.''
And Mrs. Collier wrote to The Box Project that Mrs. Getchell was ``just like a big sister.''
This person-to-person project has also had a very personal way of growing.
Like most who participate as helper families, Hayes learned of the program through a friend and a church newsletter. According to Nancy Normen, the project's executive director, the network has spread from two individuals to almost 5,600 participants in 1986 - mostly by word of mouth.
Helper families usually come to the program through newspaper or magazine articles, Ms. Normen says. And needy families learn about the project either from neighbors already receiving assistance or sometimes through field workers and regional clinics.
The project was first started in 1962 by a Vermont resident, Virginia Naeve, who began sending letters, clothing, and food to needy black families in Mississippi and Georgia - the names of whom she requested from Coretta Scott King. Friends soon helped Mrs. Naeve send the boxes of supplies, and eventually The Box Project was born. Today, it is financed by voluntary annual membership dues of $20, paid by helper families.
Normen says the project has focused thus far on the needy in Mississippi because of the state's low per capita income, few human service benefits, and high percentage of citizens living in poverty.
But helper families live in all 50 states and Canada, she says. They include retired couples, single adults, church groups, and Boy Scout troops. According to Normen, most are parents with children of their own who, like Getchell, describe themselves as ``not well-to-do.''
While some sister-family relationships have lasted as long as 20 years, most of the participants have not met the family they write to every month. Normen says a few helper families have brought the needy family's children to their home for a visit.
Other helpers - particularly those from the Midwest - have stopped to visit their sister families while driving to vacation in Florida. And plans for a first-ever reunion picnic for participating families, to be held in Mississippi next June, are currently under way.
Getchell says participating in the project has helped her to ``see a different side of people on welfare'' and reject stereotypes about the poor - like the claim that they don't want to work. She tells of Collier's attempts to find a job and go to school in Mississippi.
``It was hard because she had to leave the kids alone. She's just moved to Wisconsin, where there's more opportunity for her.''
Getchell also says the project has helped her understand a little about life for the poor in rural Mississippi. She and her husband were shocked, she says, to learn of the Collier children's trouble adjusting to their new home in Wiscon-sin.
``They were having a hard time because they'd never had a white teacher. You really just don't think of things like that.''
``I've seen people's lives improve,'' says Hayes, whose first sister family included 10 children, the youngest of whom had Downs syndrome. While Hayes sent food and clothing, another project helper was instrumental in enrolling the young child in a special school.
Mostly, says Hayes, the project brings about quiet changes in the lives of its needy participants. ``Life just seems to be better, more serene. Things seem nicer for them.''
For more information, write The Box Project Inc., Department C, PO Box 435, Plainville, CT 06062. Tel. (203) 747-8182.