For 16-month-old Layla, the colorful Red Boxes piled high around the Queens Temple were just perfect for climbing. But for the 200 families and individuals who came to The Salvation Army’s center in Jackson Heights on December 22, the boxes had more meaning. They held all the nonperishable meal fixings to go along with the ham they received, plus some warm clothing. Nearby tables overflowed with two new toys for every child.

“For them, it’s like ‘someone cares about us,’” said Captain Arlene DiCaterina, adding that this is the first year the center has offered full meals. In the past, only pantry items were given out.

It’s no wonder Layla was attracted to the boxes. Volunteers had stacked them into a high pyramid, creating a Christmas tree of Red Boxes beside the more traditional tree.

Captain Guillermo DiCaterina said this distribution day was important beyond giving people a good Christmas dinner. The neighborhood is made up of 90 percent immigrants, he said, and most are unfamiliar with The Salvation Army. He wants to introduce them to all the reasons they should return, such as music and dance programs for their children and, of course, worship.

“They don’t know we’re a church,” he said. “For many of them, this will be their first impression of The Salvation Army.”

Nelsito was one of these first-timers. He heard about the Red Box distribution through a friend.

“I’m happy and thankful,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody needs a little help. It lets us know we’re not alone. There’s a community out here.”

Some already knew this. Gamelin, a young mother sitting with her children in the chapel, said she’s a regular shopper in the Temple’s flea market where she finds quality clothes for her little ones. She says she can’t afford clothes in the stores.

“The staff here makes you welcome,” she said. “It’s so lovely.”

While the Red Boxes of food are distributed during the holidays, the Red Box Campaign continues throughout the year, supporting the vast network of programs and services The Salvation Army provides to boys, girls, men, and women. To learn more or to make a contribution, please contact Sharon Smith-Ibello at (212) 337-7345 or

By Retta Blaney