We sat down with Emma Sullings, founder of Happy Boxes Project and asked her how she helps empower the lives of women and girls in remote parts of Australia.
Women in our own backyard are going without basic toiletries. Happy Boxes Project and ELEVEN Australia believe this is unacceptable! That’s why we’re HAPPY to be a proud partner of Happy Boxes Project. A charity providing Happy Boxes filled with self-care products like shampoo and conditioner, deodorant and soap to women and girls in remote corners of Australia who don’t have access to even the most basic essentials.
“We think women are incredible and really strong. They deserve to feel and smell nice as a basic start, but they also deserve so much more. The women we support are so incredibly strong and intelligent and have so much to offer,” says Emma. “We want to provide an excuse for women and girls in remote communities to get together and nurture their wellbeing, make them laugh, giggle and give them a chance to stop and slow down and prioritise themselves.”
Emma Sullings, Founder Happy Boxes Project
WHAT IS HAPPY BOXES PROJECT AND WHY DID YOU START IT?
I spent five years working, living and learning in a remote community in the Northern Territory as a school teacher working with teenage girls. During this time, I noticed the girls’ friendships weren’t as strong as they could be, overcrowded housing was a massive issue and I realised that was evident in most of these communities. They were suffering from the effects of poor health and minimal employment opportunities. There was also a high rate of domestic violence and when you have children living in overcrowded homes there is a high chance of them being exposed to that.
So I started a wellbeing group to get the girls together once a week where we arranged different activities. During this time the girls would chat about their lives and what was going on at home. I used to try and help troubleshoot and go about strengthening their bonds and help them build each other up. A big focus of the group was coming up with ways of filling other people’s buckets and the actions they could take to make someone else’s day because that also feels good.
We decided to make a little box for the girls to put letters that they wrote or pictures they drew of each other along with photos of them in the group – it became a box for them to have all their favourite memories in and the girls coined them their Happy Box!
As part of the wellbeing group, we talk about self-care and hygiene and it became very apparent that the girls didn’t have access to these in their home. Things like shampoo, conditioner and soap. Even just having a clean towel was a struggle due to overcrowded housing since some live with up to 15 people in a single household. Even to buy something like shampoo from the local store (if you can even get to one as they can sometimes be up to 750km away) is a struggle. One bottle of shampoo which we might pay $7 for here, they can pay up to $15 (or more) out there, so families were struggling to put food on the table, let alone have the extra money for basic toiletries.
We wanted to start including some of these basic essentials to make them feel good. So I put a Facebook event out to my friends and family for anyone that had anything that wasn’t being used that they could send. People started sending so much product that we were able to fill a Happy Box for every woman in the community for International Women’s Day.
I started putting a bit more time into things back in October 2019 after my newborn baby arrived and was going through a few first-time mum struggles. It allowed me to channel some of my energy into spreading the word of the Happy Boxes which not only gave me a bit of an outlet but meant I was able to build it up a bit more. From here we held market stalls and events that raised huge donations with local people from the community wanting to get on board. I was able to develop a board and applied for registration with the ACNC which was granted and since then we’ve exploded with 34 coordinators in WA, NSW, QLD and NT.
Now, thanks to companies like ELEVEN Australia coming on board, it allows us to make a bigger impact and expand even further. We’re now doing workshops for women where they get together and do DIY beauty.
WHAT IS YOUR MAIN GOAL?
Our goals are to empower women, to get women together and nurture each other and to provide an excuse for these women to treat themselves a little bit. We’re also trying to upskill people and help them learn how to make their own basic toiletries so that when they don’t have them, they can make them. We want to share skills so that beauty doesn’t have to be expensive. They can make basic products with ingredients that are easily accessed when they can’t afford to buy them.
HOW DID THE PARTNERSHIP WITH ELEVEN AUSTRALIA COME ABOUT?
ELEVEN Australia reached out to me saying how much they loved what we were doing and that they would love to get involved somehow. When we met it became pretty evident in the first conversation that we shared the same values, ethics and passion so that felt good for me and I trusted in the partnership. The rest is history really, ELEVEN Australia organised the first shipment to go out recently which was bigger than I could have ever comprehended. The product went out to our coordinator in Alice Springs who works for an organisation which does outreach to several remote communities in the IPY lands so now when she goes out and supports community members that are running youth groups she can take a car-load of goodies to make their day. We were also able to post out these packs during COVID-19 lockdown as people weren’t able to get together. The community was overwhelmed and so grateful that these goodies were coming their way.
HOW IS ELEVEN AUSTRALIA CONTRIBUTING TO THE HAPPY BOXES PROJECT?
This is a beautiful, ongoing partnership. The donation of products is one thing, but the power of sharing our story on ELEVEN Australia’s media platforms and helping to put the knowledge of the work we do out there is just as powerful.
Having ELEVEN Australia as a partner is giving us a voice on a platform that has such a wonderful following. They’re a brand that people trust and it’s helping to get us out to the mainstream media which is important. It’s also come at an opportune time with the Black Lives Matter movement as people are now educating themselves and becoming more conscious of inequalities. What we’ve been blown away by is being recognised as a charity that is contributing to closing the gap and this only happens with the help of companies like ELEVEN Australia who are giving us a voice.
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We’re HAPPY to be partnering with @happyboxesproject Helping to empower women through alleviating the barriers of accessing basic needs in the remote corners of Australia. Women in our own backyard are going without basic toiletries and we agree with Happy Box Project that this is unacceptable. Head to the link in our bio to see the amazing work they do and join us and “give a little happy” 😊 📦
WHERE DO THE BOXES GO?
A lot of places! Firstly, they go to our coordinators in the community who conduct a bit of quality control to make sure the products are age-appropriate, culturally appropriate and safe. Our coordinators are given a lot of trust to decide which families need them most. They understand where the need is the strongest as they live amongst the community themselves. So it’s up to them to decide where they want to gift the Happy Boxes. Some work with new young mothers, some work with teenage girls at school where they set up pamper rooms so they can freshen up before they start their day and give them an added spring in their step.
They’re also used as part of wellbeing projects including dropping them out into the community and as random acts of kindness. They are also sent to women’s refuges. We also support this beautiful elders group in Lightning Ridge which is a women’s circle and they use the Happy Boxes to pamper themselves and some donations end up in maternity wards. The beautiful thing about it is it’s up to the coordinators to decide what to do with the Happy Boxes. For instance, we just got a shipment of soap to arrive in one community and the kids are going to wrap them up and give them to their families for their School Open Day.
HOW DO YOU RECRUIT YOUR COORDINATORS?
Predominantly it’s people within education or health. The majority of our coordinators have been connected through friends of friends. It started with people I’ve come across through my work in the territory. Quite often it’s teachers, and what we find in communities is schools tend to become the heart of the community and while teachers may not be from that community, they are a part of it as they live in and teach within it. Now we get contacted by local members of the community wanting to get involved.
HOW DO YOU EMPOWER WOMEN IN REMOTE AREAS OF AUSTRALIA?
While this may be slightly different in each community, the one thing that remains the same is that we’re just helping women meet their basic needs.
To give a snapshot, 1 in 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living in overcrowded housing and are 9 times more likely to access homeless services, compared to 6% of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I think we take for granted we can have a shower and wash our hair and be prepared for the day which is not something all women have access to.
Furthermore, we’re providing young women with the means to empower their mums, grandmas and aunties. We’re seeing lots of communities use the Happy Boxes to look out for each other and just give them something because they love them. That gift of giving we take for granted and how awesome that makes us feel. Being able to make someone feel that they can make a difference is a beautiful feeling.
At the moment 1 in 5 Aboriginal Australians aren’t living in what is deemed an acceptable standard of living and the target is to reach 88% by 2031 and that’s not even as high a standard as non-indigenous people have currently and I don’t know if people are aware of this.
Overcrowded housing and the cost of living plus the lack of resources and infrastructure in remote communities is a really big issue. It’s also a known fact that not having access to an acceptable standard of living leads to poor health, lower employment and poor education, so from the get-go, these women are not given the foundations that are a basic human right. I think a big part of it is people don’t understand how isolated these communities are, how far they have to travel or the expense that goes into reaching Woolworths plus the high prices compared to the rest of Australia.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I want people to understand why people stay in these communities and that’s because it is their home and their connection to the land. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states,
“Access to traditional lands and cultural identity are factors that affect the social determinant of health.”
It’s their land and they have a right to stay there which is why it’s important to try to tell the story of why it’s so important that people should stay on their homelands and why they deserve the same access to services that we have in more populated areas.
We believe taking away those barriers to accessing basic items like toothpaste and sanitary items is somewhere to start and help empower their life goals, whatever they might be. I feel the Happy Boxes have a responsibility of educating people on the disadvantages and how making a simple donation can help.
I’d like to make the point that we just want to brighten someone’s day, see the gap closed and provide the opportunity for all women to live a life that they want and find happiness in what they do. This is our way of helping.
I don’t pretend to understand all the complexities of what is happening. I’ve only got what my learned experiences are and the stories that I’ve heard.
WHAT PLATFORMS DO YOU USE TO RAISE AWARENESS?
We’re currently using our Website and Instagram which has been our key driver and trying to build a following and reach as many people as we can. We’ve got an ambassador that’s going to join the team and we will announce who that is soon. We’re also starting to approach a few Aboriginal women that we look up to and feel are great role models that have the opportunity to help the Happy Boxes reach more platforms. Other than that, it’s our website and Instagram page!
Head to happyboxesproject.com and follow @happyboxesproject to see the amazing work they do. You can also tune in to our ELEVEN Australia Podcast series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify and join us by “giving a little happy”.
ELEVEN Australia and Happy Boxes Project would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.