Samaritan's Purse begins Christmas project for children overseas

Oct. 09, 2013 @ 07:00 AM

In the sanctuary at First Baptist Hickory last week, a journey started that will end oceans away.

For 20 years, Operation Christmas Child has offered hand-packed shoeboxes full of small gifts for children in countries around the world. It’s a project overseen by Samaritan’s Purse, the international relief charity founded by Billy Graham’s eldest son, Franklin.

Since 1993, more than 100 million of the shoeboxes have been given away.

The journey of a shoebox is a long one, one that starts each year with meetings like the one held in Hickory. There, Foothills-area volunteers met with the church-level leaders who will be asked to inspire their fellow congregants to pack gifts into a box.

For the purposes of Operation Christmas Child, the “Foothills area” is a four-county region: Caldwell, Catawba, Burke, Alexander. Last year, the 30 regions in North and South Carolina collected 729,300 shoeboxes. The Foothills region was responsible for 26,818 of them.

The boxes themselves are packed by individuals. Some are asked by their church, some by a school or civic organization; others do it of their own accord. Some pack boxes all year, filing them into a closet to wait for collection week in November. Some churches hold packing parties, encouraging attendees to bring their own gifts and providing a few bulk items to line the shoeboxes as well.

Boxes are distributed in more than 100 countries, but they are collected in 12: the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and Switzerland.

Completed boxes are usually dropped off at a church. From there, they go to a local collection center – in this region, the drop-off point is First Baptist Hickory. Boxes will make their way to that downtown church during national collection week, Nov. 18-25.

From there, they go to a processing center somewhere in the United States – boxes collected here go to Charlotte. There, volunteers comb through the boxes, making sure there’s nothing inappropriate inside – no chocolate that can’t stay stable during miles of travel; no toy guns that might end up in the hands of a child in a war-torn country.

They also add a religious tract – Samaritan’s Purse calls it “The Greatest Gift" – in the child’s native language, although in countries hostile to Christianity those are not added for the child’s safety.

From there, boxes bob and weave across the ocean in cargo ships, sometimes handled for months by international crews whose children have received shoeboxes themselves. (Jennifer Davis, Carolinas Regional Manager for Operation Christmas Child, said she met several workers on a Charleston cargo ship whose children were former shoebox recipients.)

Once in the intended country, international volunteer teams and local religious boxes get the boxes into the hands of children. This doesn’t usually happen at Christmastime, despite the name – ideally, all boxes are received by May, Davis said.

There are still, of course, many children living in poverty who have never received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox – and organizers try to keep that in mind.

“As we see all these huge numbers, it’s important to keep perspective,” Davis said. “There’s still a great opportunity for us.”

This year, plenty of opportunity is expected for the Foothills region. The goal is 29,500 shoeboxes.