When Milan Coraggio-Sewell was six years old, she experienced something no child should have to go through: she lost her best friend in a tragic accident while on a trip to California. A few short years later, she lost two of her grandparents. At such a young age, Milan wasn’t sure how to process what had happened. She kept her feelings boxed up.
“All I knew was that one day we were playing on the beach together, and then I never saw him again. I didn’t know how to express my feelings in the weeks that followed. I just felt sad, angry and confused,” Milan said.
These feelings inspired her to create the Boxed Up Project – a nonprofit focused on helping grief-stricken youth realize that they aren’t alone.
Milan, a junior at Phoenix Country Day School, has volunteered with various organizations around the Valley, including Best Buddies and Gardens of Scottsdale.
“I wanted to do something even more meaningful to help the community by figuring out what felt most personal and authentic to me,” she said. “I asked myself what event in my life had the most impact on me, and the first thing that popped into my head was when my best friend died.”
Milan knew she could help others going through the same experiences she did, so she started researching grief help for children and found a company selling boxes in Canada. She noticed that the boxes were primarily adult-based and had a higher cost.
“That sparked my idea for the Boxed Up Project. I was going to create special boxes for kids at no cost, to help them unpack their feelings,” Milan said.
She believes that part of not dealing with her grief is due to the societal stigmas around the embarrassment of showing emotions.
“I want to address this issue. The only way to cope with grief healthily is to talk and freely express yourself. Instead of keeping your emotions ‘Boxed Up inside of you,’ we are here to help you ‘unpack your grief,’” she said.
After coming up with the idea, Milan wrote up a mission statement and business plan outlining her goals and objectives. She also registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission and the IRS for 501c3 nonprofit status.
She then reached out to other organizations to gauge their interest in handing out boxes to their youth members. The first organization was Billy’s Place, which uses the boxes for workshops with kids and teens.
Boxed Up is also partnering with New Song Center for Grieving Children, Stepping Stones of Hope, Open Hearts Wellness, Ryan House and the Navajo Nation.
“The Boxed Up Project will be a wonderful new resource for families who are grieving and will provide a practical guide to encourage the children and the parents in that process,” Lisa Betcher, who works at New Song Center, said.
Milan worked with grief experts to figure out what should be included and decided that the best items would correlate with different feelings.
They came up with two unisex boxes: one for ages 5-10 and another for 11-17. They contain many of the same items catered for each age group: art supplies, journals, a stuffed animal, comfort cards and exercise/positive affirmation cards, a grief book, fun activities, a picture frame and album, stickers and an instruction manual on how to use the box.
Milan also recruited two team members to help: Arcadia High sophomore Sinclaire Titzck and Xavier Prep junior Elina Ferrigno. The pair focus on fundraising and organizing box assembly parties.
“Sinclaire and Elina reach out to other organizations so we can expand and provide boxes for more kids who are struggling. We all go together to deliver the boxes so that we can present them and learn more about each organization,” Milan said.
In starting the project, Milan said she’s learned so much about how different people process grief – and the ups and downs of a nonprofit.
“Everyone grieves differently, and we need to learn to accept that,” she said. “Today’s world makes teens feel anxious to express how they feel and truly open up. I’ve learned that you need not be afraid and go through the process.”
She said that running a nonprofit is complicated, time-consuming and she faces new challenges every day.
“I learned how to manage my time and stay organized, how to make presentations and interact with business people,” she said.
Being a teenager also has its share of challenges. Milan said that people have been kind and helpful in offering their services and advice. At the same time, she said that not everyone took her seriously at first, so she had to work extra hard to prove herself.
“I’m so glad I created Boxed Up Project because every time I meet with an organization, they are so excited about what we are doing. Helping others makes all of this so worthwhile,” she said.
“New Song and Hospice of the Valley are honored to advise and support Milan as she develops her nonprofit. She is an extraordinary young woman who truly wants to comfort children, and we’re inspired by her heart and vision,” Betcher said.
Milan and her team hope to expand the Boxed Up Project in the future to include other types of grief, such as separation, anxiety, trauma and mental health struggles.