TUNICA — As a child growing up in Tunica, a place once dubbed "America's Ethiopia," Sherrodrick "Mike" Frazier often wondered if anyone cared about him and his four brothers and cousins — seven children in all — who slept in a single bedroom in a tarpaper shack.
The wind howled through the broken windows. A naked lightbulb provided the only light.
"We came from nothing," the now successful barbershop owner said as he remembered his childhood. "We would get out and pick up cans and try to find some iron. We used to make our own bikes."
As it turns out, someone did care about Frazier's plight.
Carol Barnes, a social worker from Des Moines, Iowa, had been flipping through a magazine when she came across an article about the Box Project, a national, non-profit organization, now headquartered in Hernando, that has been matching volunteer sponsors from across the United States with recipient families living in rural poverty in America since 1962.
"I saw that little article in the women's magazine about the Box Project, and I said to my husband, 'this is something we can do.' We sent our names in, and we were matched up with Rosie Frazier and her family."
That was 20 years ago.
Barnes' and the Frazier family have since formed a long-lasting bond which has continued to this day, even after the death of Rosie, the family matriarch, two years ago.
"At that time, Rosie's boys, a combination of a son and grandsons, ranged in age from 2 to 10 years," Barnes said. "For the first three years, we had the usual Box Project relationship with the Frazier family, sending clothes, shoes, school supplies and household goods as well as Christmas boxes. Rosie always responded with a thank you letter laboriously printed since she was functionally illiterate. Her letters described their life, and ended saying she would pray for us and ask for God's blessing upon us. Little did she know the relationship was going to bless us richly."
Barnes and her husband, a veterinarian, aren't wealthy people. Neither were a couple from their small Iowa church who decided to join the effort to improve the lives of Rosie and her family.
"The gifts you give through the Box Project don't have to be huge gifts," Barnes said. "The boxes we sent didn't have a value of more than about $30, but it made a big difference in the lives of that family."
Barnes said "miraculous" changes began to occur shortly after the boxes began arriving in the mail at the family's home in Tunica. Rosie would write to Carol Barnes and express her gratitude for receiving the "little treasures" in the mail.
"After three years of only written correspondence, our group decided someone had to go to meet the family and see their situation first hand. We were chosen to go and that began what we believe to be a miraculous story."
Barnes said she and her husband purchased an old washing machine and several bikes and "headed south."
Barnes, who lived in the rural heartland of America, was shocked at her first glimpse of life in the rural impoverished South.
"The family was living in what we have called the equivalent of a slave shack, which was located in a subdivision of Tunica, also known as the North Sub," Barnes said. "The old tin roof leaked, the porch was falling off and windows were broken. Inside the house there was light weight wiring strung from room to room with an occasional bare bulb hanging. Only one small open flame gas heater heated the house. The boys slept on bare springs."
At the time, Tunica was in the middle of the casino boom, and land had become pricey.
"Rosie felt lucky to have what she had. We asked if we could at least patch the holes in the roof with tar. She said 'no,' because the landlord would then raise the rent."
At the time, Rosie Frazier was living on $240 a month in child welfare payments plus food stamps.
What Rosie Frazier really needed was a proper home in which to raise her large extended family.
Carol Barnes went back to Iowa and told her small church group that they needed to help build a new home for Rosie Frazier and her family.
She enlisted the help of Habitat For Humanity and area churches in Iowa.
"On just our word, 110 churches in Iowa sent us over $20,000 and appliances."
"When we arrived on that first visit, the entire Frazier family was gathered on the porch to greet us with open arms," Barnes said. "From that moment on for the next 17 years, we have been attached to the Frazier family, and until recently, made twice yearly trips to see them."
One of Barnes last visits was two weeks before Rosie Frazier died. In her will, Rosie Frazier left her home to her grandson Sherrodrick or "Mikey."
"She thought that he was the most responsible," Barnes said. "After the house passed to him, he made rules for the house and anyone living there. Anyone over the age of 21 can live in the house if they have a job or if they are in school."
Sherrodrick or "Mikey" has even given refuge to his biological mother who couldn't take care of him when he was growing up because she was in prison.
His mother is now gainfully employed as head of housekeeping at a local casino.
In essence, a simple box sent by strangers changed the lives of an entire family.
"Because of the Box Project, which led to the building of their new house, the boys grades went up significantly," Barnes said. "It's like dropping a pebble in a pool of water. You never know what the ripple effect will be."
Mikey Frazier was seven when he first met Carol Barnes. In short, Mikey Frazier said Carol Barnes and the Box Project saved his life.
"It was a nice amount of years ago," Frazier said as he sat at his barber shop station inside his barbershop in Tunica.
But Frazier has never forgotten.
"The Box Project came, and it was a blessing," Frazier said.
The Box Project, which has touched the lives of more than 7,000 people during the course of a half century, including the Frazier family, was born during an airplane ride to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
Virginia Naeve, originally of New Hampshire, and now of Canada, met famed civil rights leader Coretta Scott King.
"They were talking about poverty and racism in Mississippi and the South," Donna Goldman, director of the Box Project, said during an interview at the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi which now oversees the project. "When she (Naeve) got back home, she got the name from Mrs. King of a family that really needed help, and so she sent a box of clothing and basic need items. Her church friends and neighbors started bringing things to send to Mississippi. Instead of bringing everything to her, they started designating families. It originally started out at the Mississippi Box Project and later it was expanded to other areas."
"It had been headquartered in Florida, but the majority of families lived in the Mississippi area," Goldman said.
Tom Pittman, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, said the Community Foundation took oversight of the Box Project in 2009.
"We have not changed the mission, which is to encourage and enrich the lives of families and individuals living in poverty in rural America by establishing meaningful relationships, promoting education, and offering material aid," Pittman said.
The Box Project "fit in nicely" with the Community Foundation's mission of "connecting people who care with causes that matter," according to Pittman.
The Box Project serves carefully selected areas of rural poverty including: the Mississippi Delta and rural communities in Maine, Appalachia (including West Virginia and Kentucky), the Native American reservations of South Dakota and Florida.
This 50-year-old program matches sponsors from 47 states with recipient families living in rural poverty. About once a month, sponsors send boxes of food, clothing, supplies, and other aid to a family. For more info, go to boxproject.org.
"It's not about the materials in that box," Pittman said. "It's about friendships and trust. We hope the sponsors will give these recipients advice. We have story after story of people who have gone on to college because of the relationships they made through the Box Project."
Good Housekeeping Magazine has selected the Box Project as a favorite charity.
"We have sponsors representing 47 of the 50 states," Pittman said, adding that the numbers keep growing.
In 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession, Box Project officials conducted an Internet search and discovered the Community Foundation.
They contacted Pittman after learning of efforts by the Foundation in the eight-county area of Northwest Mississippi.
Pittman began to read and hear stories of the lives the Box Project had touched, like Tim Holston who grew up in the "suburbs" of Itta Bena, made famous as the dusty Delta hamlet where blues great B.B. King was born.
When Holston was an early teen, a Box Project sponsor family sent Holston two books. They were the first books he ever owned. Holston has earned two masters degrees and is working on his PhD. in computer science.
Pittman and the CFNM Board were impressed with Holston story and others like the Frazier family, success stories literally happening in the Community Foundation's backyard.
"This is some stunning stuff to me," Pittman said. "A family in Massachusetts sending a box and a letter to a family who lives on a dirt road in Itta Bena. How does somebody go from that dirt road in Itta Bena to having a PhD in computer science? Whether it's becoming a barber or a computer scientist, there have been some significant success stories over 50 years which have affected more than 800 families per year."
The Box Project, a national, non-profit organization that has been matching volunteer sponsors from across the United States with recipient families living in rural poverty, celebrates 50 years of service with a permanent exhibit which opened in the Charles W. Capps Museum and Archives building on the campus of Delta State University.
Delta State Archivist Emily Jones organized the exhibit which will display the collection of Virginia Naeve who founded The Box Project in 1962.
"The Box Project collection is a wonderful addition to the University Archives research materials," said Jones. "I am thankful to the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi for allowing us to be the custodians of the collection and supporting the exhibit. Visitors will find letters, photographs and objects that share the story of how The Box Project was first founded and how it continues to serve and connect families today."
The Box Project assists people living in America's worst areas of rural poverty. It seeks to alleviate the effects of poverty and increase mutual understanding through direct, people-to-people assistance. With the help of referring agencies, The Box Project seeks families who want to better themselves by getting an education or better job skills, and by working on ways to improve their lives.
Sponsors, in concert with The Box Project, provide support for the growth and success of recipient families, with the goal of alleviating suffering and increasing self sufficiency. Most of the current 851 recipient families reside in the Mississippi Delta.
For more information about the Box Project contact the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi at 662-449-5002 or go online at www.boxproject.org.