When a close friend's mom died suddenly before Christmas from COVID-19, all Jen Barcenas wanted to do was hop on the first flight out, dash to her friend's side, and envelope her in a hug. Unfortunately, that just wasn't an option.
Sending flowers, she said, just didn't feel like enough. She scoured the internet, but nothing felt right. Instead she wrote a poem, bought a teddy bear, and boxed them up so when opened the bear would look like it was ready to give her friend a hug.
"The idea then had really great feedback from friends and family, so my husband (Juan Barcenas) and I got to talking about it and thought 'maybe we should do this.' "
The couple from Mason created BoxfullCincy.
"The intent of Boxfull is that it's a way to be there even when you can't," Jen Barcenas says. "When you send a Boxfull of Hugs, you're really sending that bear in your place to be there to comfort and celebrate and connect you with the loved one you miss."
Each Boxfull of Hugs comes with a 22-inch teddy bear and a poem. Barecenas sometimes includes personalized messages, poems or handwritten notes. "I believe that if you really close your eyes tight and squeeze the bear tight, you can feel the hug from whoever sent it to you."
The wife and husband team both have day jobs and run this online shop in their spare time.
"It was important enough to us to put resources behind it because, it's really amazing, the feedback we've gotten and the types of connections that people have made. It's been worth the investment," she adds.
Comments posted by customers offer glowing reviews.
"Sent to my best friend who is sick and quarantining," writes one reviewer. "Her phone call and sobs to me said it all; it truly made her day."
"We sent this product to our grandparents, only to receive a phone call with tears. This product is so clever and meaningful. The bear is just perfect for hugs," writes another.
Perhaps the most touching - and heart-wrenching - story that Barcenas recounts was an order for siblings ages 14, 13 and 10-year-old twins who lost their mother to COVID-19 on Christmas Day. Barcenas' own mother died when she was nine, so she could empathize with their pain. She wrote a new, personalized poem for each child, trying, she says, to comfort and convey what she'd want her own children to hear.
"This woman (the buyer) and I exchanged stories and shared pictures and connected far deeper than you would expect through an Etsy shop," she recalls. "The last piece of it that really got me was when she sent me the message that she wanted in the card. She closed the message with the Lord's Blessing and that was actually something that my mom requested the pastor say to her when she was sick in the hospital and at the funeral."
The exchange struck a chord. Barcenas says what she and her husband get out of this effort is incredible and more than they expected.
"This is a labor of love," Juan Barcenas agrees. "We both have full-time jobs but we really decided that this is something that we should do."
He says it's a family affair, too, with everyone going to the post office to mail packages. "As a family, I think this is something we'll continue to do just to grow together at this time."