Ten-year-old Sita smiled shyly as her teacher told her to queue up along with the around 500 other children.
‘You are all going to be getting some lovely gifts,’ said the teacher of the school run by a charity called Sakshi, in New Delhi, India. Sakshi helps less-privileged children get a proper education.
The kids quickly formed a queue, after which each of them was given a lovely white carton with a red bow on the top.
Giggling with expectation, the children sat down, and, following a nod from their teacher, tore open their gift boxes. Almost instantly squeals of joy could be heard ringing through the room.
‘Look at this lovely set of books,’ shrieked one kid in delight.
‘I got a beautiful set of school supplies, among other things,’ said another.
Sita opened her box and was thrilled to find storybooks, some toiletries such as a few bars of soap, a pretty kid’s toothbrush and hairbands, among other things.
‘All these are for me?’ asked Sita, overjoyed. ‘Yes, all for you,’ smiled the teacher.
The more than 500 children, students of a school in a slum in Delhi, were excited to receive the gift boxes that arrived to their school thanks to the initiative of a five-year-old girl named Joud who, for her fifth birthday, requested that her family and friends provide Happy Boxes to poor children instead of birthday gifts for her.
‘It’s such a joy to see the smiles on the children’s faces when they open the Happy Boxes,’ says Jumana Al Darwish, one of the visitors to the school who accompanied the charity members to distribute the boxes. She and her team in Dubai had put together the boxes to be distributed to needy children.
Founder Jumana says The Happy Box is a happiness generator – both for the needy worldwide, and parents and kids in the UAE.
Jumana runs a company called The Happy Box in the UAE, which makes and delivers these boxes for a fee, to families across the UAE. Filled with games, puzzles and activities for children between the ages of two and 11, they are educational yet fun in nature, and promote cognitive development, creativity and fine motor skills in children.
And for each box sold, the company arranges to deliver one box of practical stuff to needy children in Jordan, India and Nepal. But more about that later.
Jumana describes her garage, at her home in Dubai’s Umm Suqeim 3, as ‘a unicorn, candy, la la land’. When you step inside, it’s easy to see why.
There is glitter and games and balloons and multicoloured felt and sequins everywhere. Shelves stretching from floor to ceiling – and requiring a mobile ladder to reach the top – are filled with toys and crayons, modelling clay and mini dolls. Decorations of mock lollies and ice creams hang from the ceiling. Heaps of cuddly toys are scattered around the floor. Rainbow-coloured confetti is littered everywhere. And in the middle of it all are a couple of work benches, as bright and bold as the rest.
‘I love to sit here and zone out and just feel… inspired,’ says the 34-year-old.
It may be her garage, but this place is also now known as The Happy Factory, the base for a new UAE business that aims to do nothing less than create a more cheerful world.
The Happy Box – that’s the name of this family firm – does what it says in the title. Every month Jumana and her 12 staff design and create boxes filled with games, activities, arts, crafts, puzzles, jokes, model sets and occasionally a sweet treat; and then they send them to children whose parents have placed an order.
The idea is that when the parcel arrives, the fun stuff within not only puts a smile on the youngster’s face, it also encourages mums and dads to sit down with them and work through the activities together. In short, it creates a space for quality time.
‘As parents, we’ve never been busier or had more demands on our time – work, friends, family, the city – and that can be difficult,’ says Jumana. ‘We’re not saying The Happy Box can solve that on its own but what it does do is come with eight activities every month – building a disco ball, for example, or creating a piece of calligraphy – and all the equipment you need to complete them. So, it allows you, as a parent, to focus your time on doing this fun, educational stuff with your child without the need to spend an afternoon at the shops buying everything you would otherwise need.’
In this way, she says the business is not just a money-making enterprise – although, of course, she doesn’t turn down the profits that the Dh250-per-box make. It is also and more importantly, she insists, a happiness generator. For the youngs and the olds. ‘My background is in philanthropy,’ says Jumana, ‘and the motivation behind this business is ultimately to make a difference.’ The Happiness Box, as a concept, came into being on New Year’s Day, 2014. Jumana, originally from Jordan, was sitting in New York City café with her American sister-in-law Linda Al Darwish. The pair were at different stages of their life. Linda, 54, was an educational worker and speech therapist with two adult children, while Jumana had not long ago had her first baby, Ayla, now four.
But, over French toast, they fell to discussing how both were looking for a fresh challenge.
‘We were saying how we felt there was something missing in our working lives,’ recalls Jumana. ‘Linda was looking for a new adventure and, since I’d become a mum, I was wanting a career that would offer me more flexibility and time at home. And we both wanted to do some good. That was the key. We were saying we’d like to make the world a happier place – like wouldn’t it be nice if we could send out parcels of happiness to people – and the idea really sparked from there. It sort of arrived fully formed. By the time we’d finished our brunch, I think the basics of the business had been decided.’
Linda, who lives in the US, was to take charge of company development, while Jumana would focus on designing, creating and marketing the boxes each month. Her husband, Suhail Al Nouri, also from Jordan, would maintain his full-time job but offer guidance in logistics, his area of expertise. Little Ayla would be chief tester of prototypes to make sure all activities and games appealed to kids.
They would, they also decided, start the business in the UAE, where they felt there was most potential for growth; and then look to expand across the Middle East and eventually into Europe and America. And so, after setting up a first ‘factory’ on Jumana and Suhail’s dining room table, The Happy Box sent out its initial parcels in May that year. The run was for just 25 and ordered mainly by the couple’s parent friends.
‘But within a few months we were doing hundreds of boxes,’ says Jumana. ‘We thought it would be a success, but even we were surprised by how popular how quickly it became. Which was when I realised I’d have to move from the dining room table and bring some more people in. The garage wasn’t doing much so it seemed like the perfect place to set up shop.’
Today, the firm sends out more than a thousand boxes during peak season and 300-400 in the summer. Customers have to be UAE based, although they have just franchised the business in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Practically, it works like this. Jumana and a couple of creative directors plan each month’s box a quarter of a year in advance; they come up with an overriding theme – dinosaurs, regional art, and back-to-school have all been used – and work on prototypes of games and activities to include; they iron out any possible problems while teaming up with a different partner firm each month to supply materials; and then, in the weeks before post out, each box is assembled in the garage. They are all personalised, as well as being made age- and gender-appropriate.
‘It runs surprisingly smoothly,’ says Jumana, who moved to Dubai 11 years ago. ‘But I put that down to an excellent business model, as well as just being passionate about what we’re doing.’
Syrian refugee children living in a camp in Jordan received a fun surprise too, with packages filled with everything from stationery to soaps.
As part of a Happy Hearts Giving programme, it is promising that for every box bought in 2016, it will donate a specially-made parcel to a child in need. Already Jumana has travelled to Nepal, India and Jordan to distribute such packages. In the first two countries, they were given to orphans; in the latter, to Syrian refugees.
These are different to the boxes they send out to customers, of course. These ones are filled with more practical things: stationery and soaps and books and such like.
‘We work with trusted partners and charities on the ground and when we give them out, the look on these children’s faces really just makes the hard work worthwhile,’ says Jumana. ‘That something so simple can bring these kids, despite their really appalling circumstances, such joy – that is a remarkable thing.
‘Now that the business has proved it can be financially sustainable and support itself, this is the area that we most want to expand to. It is hugely important to us, as a firm and a family, to bring good to the world and to make a difference where we can. That is where we want to focus more and more of our energies.’