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‘Best medicine that money cannot buy.’ North Texas woman’s charity brightens hospital stays

Emily Lites started the nonprofit organization Emily’s Smile Boxes when her younger brother Jude was in the hospital after he had a pediatric stroke.
Emily Lites started the nonprofit organization Emily’s Smile Boxes when her younger brother Jude was in the hospital after he had a pediatric stroke. Emily's Smile Boxes

If ever a name were apropos it is that of Emily Lites. She and her organization Emily’s Smile Boxes brighten the day of many youngsters who are in a hospital.

The nonprofit, based out of Argyle, was started when Emily was only 10 years old. Her younger brother, Jude, was in the hospital after he had a pediatric stroke before he was born.

Pediatric strokes are rare. According to a report from the National Library of Medicine, it is estimated the occurrence of strokes in children ranges from 2.5 to 13 per 100,000 per year with a mortality rate up to 25%.

“Jude was in the hospital a lot as a baby and I noticed everyone on his unit seemed rather bored. One night I was watching a show on military care boxes and asked my mom if we could create something similar for the patients in his hospital,” Emily recalled. “We took 12 boxes to the hospital Jude was at and it took off from there.”

Emily’s Smile Boxes was established in 2008. As she went through school, graduating Trophy Club Nelson High School in 2017 and later earning her degree in psychology from the University of Alabama in 2020, the organization has remained a top priority with her.

A decade and a half after sprouting from her imagination, Emily’s Smile Boxes has delivered over 25,000 boxes around the world and raised over $200,000 in their efforts to bring a little joy to children needing a little “pick me up,” as well as their siblings who, like Emily, found themselves looking for a way to pass the time.

They even supply Smile Boxes to children recovering at home.

Smile Boxes may contain puzzles, crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals, stress balls, card games, yo-yos and more. They make sure not to include edible things or any choking hazardous items.

The majority of the items in the boxes come from Oriental Trading Company.

Once the boxes are ready — after being created in a box making party — Emily and volunteers deliver them in person to locl hospitals, including Cook Children’s, Dallas Medical City, Scottish Rite and more. They’ve also shipped to every state in the U.S., Canada and Jamaica.

“Emily has a heart to serve children that are spending hours in a hospital for a sibling or for their own special need. Emily’s Smile Boxes fill that need,” said Jason Ridley, a large contributor who has also participated in multiple box parties. “This organization has changed the life of so many children in those hospitals by making their situation a little bit more bearable.”

Remembering Jude

Jude died on April 9, 2016. He was 7 years, 7 months and 7 days old. Emily calls him “a perfect angel.”

“I knew that Jude had suffered a stroke in utero and I knew he may be different from other children,” Emily remembered.

When Jude was born he appeared to be a normal child, she said, but at 3 months he suffered a grand mal seizure.

Jude had 19 major bouts of pneumonia. His health deteriorated over the years to the point that he needed round-the-clock nursing care, oxygen machines, and constant monitoring.

“Throughout this experience, Jude always kept a huge smile on his face and he just had this calming presence when you were around him,” Emily said. “He didn’t know any of the negatives in the world and only knew love. That’s how he inspired me and others.”

Allan Fackler was Jude’s nurse. He praised what Emily is doing in memory of her brother, saying she has given children everywhere “the best medicine that money cannot buy.”

“A merry heart does good, like medicine,” he said, quoting Proverbs 17:22. “Emily Lites is the earthly version of the angel that her brother Jude is now in heaven.”

Finding opportunities

Emily and her mother, Jennifer, take every opportunity to spread the word about the Smile Boxes. In 2017 Emily was granted a great chance to do so when she was named Miss Texas Teen International.

“It definitely helped my charity. It was the best year regarding donations because I was able to make a lot of appearances,” she said. “It was also my first year at the University of Alabama and by joining my sorority, Delta Gamma, I was able to get my sorority involved in the appearances.

“Also, a sparkly crown never hurts when attracting audiences and requesting they give back to others.”

Emily continues to speak at every opportunity, not only about the Smile Boxes. She and her mother work hard to raise awareness about pediatric strokes at every event.

She is available to speak at events regarding the importance of community service and helping others. She has given many speeches at churches and schools.


Jennifer is also the event coordinator for Emily’s Smile Boxes. The one coming up is Dueling Pianos on Aug. 18 at The Marq Southlake from 6:30 to 11 p.m. The evening will feature a cocktail hour, appetizer, three-course meal and a show.

Tickets are still available on Eventbrite under the title The Treat, a Tasty Fun-Filled Evening.

“We only have one large gala per year and a few small fundraising events, so every cent counts,” Emily said.

Emily said the idea came to her after attending a similar event to support Metroport Meals on Wheels.

“We know how difficult it is to run a charity, so my family is very involved in giving back,” she said. “We loved their gala so much that we talked to them about doing something similar and got the contact information to the same dueling piano company.”

Emily’s Smile Boxes also fundraises through sources such as Gofundme and smaller events they put together like casino nights and carnivals. However, most of their donations come from big donors, she said.

Emily noted that 99% of everything taken in goes directly to the mission with only 1% going toward administrative costs to run the charity.

The cost of one Smile Box is around $10.

More the merrier

Schools, churches, Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops and others often hold their own Emily’s Smile Box events. A typical Smile Box Party will result in between 200 and 400 boxes being created.

Emily noted these events are oriented around the importance of community service while having fun. They often include activities such as face painting, coloring, bounce houses, and games.

In fact, it seems folks everywhere are participating.

A Girl Scout troop in Los Angeles is hosting a party to make 50 boxes. Emily said these will be dropped off at a children’s hospital there, with the troop promising to send photos.

“Studies show that play helps pediatric patients relieve stress and heal faster,” she said.

The annual Christmas party is the largest box making event of the season, Emily said, noting that additional volunteers are always welcome to help. She said folks are needed to put the boxes together, drop them off, donate the facility for the party, donate food, and more.

Emily today

Emily now works at Cook Children’s Hospital on the inpatient psychiatric unit for children 2 to 12. These patients are often experiencing a crisis and stay on the unit due to risk behaviors, including suicide ideation, aggression, psychosis, or self-harm.

“I spent a lot of time with Jude at Cook’s so I was well acquainted with the hospital,” she said.

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