December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Richard Paul Evans was at the end of his rope. The bestselling author of The Christmas Box and his wife, Keri, had just rushed their year-old son to a Salt Lake City ER with a fever of 104°. Earlier that day the couple had been arguing over whether Evans should continue pursuing his latest vision—building a temporary shelter for abused and neglected children—a dream that had already consumed much of the $4.2 million windfall from Box, his 1993 inspirational megaseller. “We had completely run out of money,” Evans recalls. “We were tapped out on loans.” As the family waited, they saw a social worker carrying in a severely beaten toddler who was bruised, bleeding and sobbing in pain. Evans introduced himself, then asked the woman where the child would go at 2 a.m. She said, “I’m not sure. If your shelter were finished, I would take him there.” Evans’s wife turned to him. In tears, Keri said, “We have to do this. We have to finish the shelter.”

Six years after that child’s providential appearance, Evans has done much, much more. Since the first of his shelters, called Christmas Box Houses, opened in September 2000 in Salt Lake City, nearly 5,000 Utah children have found refuge at the facilities. The fourth shelter will open Dec. 5 in Ogden, Utah, and 26 cities across the country have approached Evans to find out how to get a Christmas Box House of their own. “These are more than buildings,” says Evans, 41, of the shelters. “The Christmas Box House is a concept, the idea that society takes care of its own.” Says Lily Eskelsen, a former Utah educator and now secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association: “People are astounded that something like this got off the ground. They can’t believe it was a single person.”

Evans has made a habit of pulling off the improbable, starting with what he calls the “miracle” of his first book’s success. After six publishers rejected The Christmas Box—a novel about a father learning the importance of his young daughter’s childhood—Evans, then a Salt Lake advertising executive, and his wife spent their $7,000 in savings to self-publish the book, which would eventually sell 8 million copies.

From the start the author, whose father was a social worker, and Keri, now 40, wanted to give some of their good fortune back to the community. Evans’s mission became clear to him, he says, after he visited the Salt Lake County shelter for children who were removed from their homes after alleged neglect or abuse—it was a renovated car port in a strip mall. “There were two children playing under a desk as their only recreation. They could hear adults in the next room discussing their placement,” recalls Evans, then the father of three. (His brood has since expanded by two children, who now range in age from 5 to 17.) “I thought, ‘The animal shelter is better than this.’ ” During his visit, Evans says, he learned of one child who had been returned to an abusive home nine times and eventually died at the hands of his parents. When Evans asked why the child was sent back, his caseworker said that the child had nowhere else to go.

That’s what Evans is trying to fix. From the moment the children walk into one of the new shelters and choose a stuffed animal from under the giant year-round Christmas trees in the foyer, the message conveyed is that “it’s a safe place for them to cradle their broken hearts for a while,” says Sharon Hall, a teacher at the Salt Lake City facility. The shelters, overseen by Evans’s father, David, represent a unique cooperative effort between private and public initiatives: The author’s foundation largely finances the facilities while Utah social services agencies contribute personnel and local school districts staff the on-site school. After children are assessed, they can be put up for adoption, placed in foster care, given to relatives or, if their home is judged safe, returned. “Hearing their stories,” says Keri Evans of the children, “helps us look deeper into our own lives.”

These days Evans remains a frequent visitor to the shelters, despite a schedule more hectic than ever. In September he released his ninth novel, A Perfect Day, and next year plans to turn a Peruvian orphanage into the fifth Christmas Box House. “He’ll show up with an 8-ft. inflatable snowman or a cotton-candy machine,” says Becky Rhead, a staffer at the Salt Lake City facility. “He always wants the kids to have a good time.” Often Evans brings his entire family along with him, especially to help celebrate holidays. “I thought the Christmas Box House was just a gift,” Evans reflects. “But the more I do, the more I see that what I give away is the only thing that stays with me.”

Pam Lambert. Carolyn Campbell in Salt Lake City

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