Tom Smart, Deseret News
Three Christmas Box House locations in Utah provide safe places for children taken from their homes where there is abuse, abandonment or neglect. It accepts donations and volunteers year-round.

SALT LAKE CITY — About a year ago, a single father of three called child welfare authorities saying he was feeling suicidal. While he was at his worst, he didn't want his children to be at risk.

"We were able to take them in, give them a home away from home at the Christmas Box House, and let their dad get the help he needed," said Lisa McDonald, executive director at Christmas Box International, a charity that supports three group homes for children in Utah.

Years ago, kids taken from unsafe environments in their homes often had to wait things out in the back of a police car or in some government worker's office until they were temporarily placed with foster parents.

The creation of the charity in 1998 curtailed that practice, allowing children to stay at the houses, including keeping siblings together in most cases, and giving them access to many of the basic necessities they might unfortunately be doing without at home.

Occupancy fluctuates throughout the year, but among the three homes — in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Moab — the Christmas Box Houses served nearly 1,400 youth last year, with at least 800 staying more than one night.

"We see a lot of kids who have gone through some of the really rough things, some really traumatic things," McDonald said. "It's hard to see that. It's hard to see kids go through abuse, neglect or abandonment."

The idea behind supplying "anything a child would need" in one place, she said, helps children feel more comfortable in the ever-changing circumstances around them. The facilities provide therapists, medical and dental care, education and/or transportation to and from school, but also new clothing, bedding, shoes, books and toys — all of which is collected through charitable donations.

"We take care of the child's immediate needs, but also slow the system down enough to assess what the child is really going through," McDonald said. "Families can hopefully solve the problems of whatever brought them into care and then be reunited."

Occasionally, children spend a birthday at the facility, or other special events, such as school dances, which are all taken care of by the Christmas Box House staff and volunteers. Another feature of the homes is that children who are being placed in new homes for foster care or otherwise, are able to select a stuffed animal to "adopt," making the process more understandable to them.

"It's not easy to be removed from your home," McDonald said, adding that the Christmas Box House is a safe respite from the problems at home. The facilities, however, are not just a convenient place to house children, but a transition to either going back home or some other long-term placement, which staff members try to find as quickly as possible.

The charity also provides various programs for children of all ages throughout the year, including a mentoring project for kids aging out of the foster care system on their own and a special, Christmas-giving project for kids, some of whom have never received their own gifts.

Anything donated to the charity is used to make children's lives better, or give them a chance to be happy and anything excess is distributed to kids via various child welfare partnerships around the state.

McDonald said that "with a name like the Christmas Box House," they are a beacon for volunteers and donations, but, she said, "everything is much appreciated."

Kids who come to the Christmas Box Houses often go home with new outfits, a stuffed toy, a new book, a duffel bag and more.

"They lose everything when they are removed from their homes," McDonald said. "We make sure that whatever we give them while they're here, they get to keep."

The facilities only deal in new merchandise, as it takes more working hours to sort through used goods and "many of these kids have more hand-me-downs than not," McDonald said.

Children who land in any of the homes usually come from difficult circumstances, she said, adding that the facility's year-round Christmas decorations help to lighten their spirits. Volunteers also do much to help the children, including hosting meals, parties or activities at the group homes throughout the year.

Thursday, KSL Newsradio will be broadcasting live from the Salt Lake City Christmas Box House, also helping to prep rooms and build excitement for the coming holidays, with various holiday performances and a plea to the public to keep the homes and giving in mind.

As the weather changes and holiday stresses build up at this time of year, McDonald said occupancy at the houses increases, with more kids coming into at least the Salt Lake City house.

The welcoming and friendly environment was just what the suicidal father needed for his children at this time last year, as the family was safely reunited just before Christmastime. And McDonald said she hopes the Christmas Box House is able to continue to save the lives and tender emotional states of other children, too, for years to come.

For more information, or to find wish lists for each of the homes or to make a cash donation, visit www.thechristmasboxhouse.org.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards