October 26, 2013 11:27:12 PM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
The gifts are small -- a stuffed animal, pencils, a pretty hair clip, bar of soap or tiny model car. But they deliver a powerful message. One that says, "You are not forgotten. Someone cares." To a little girl in an orphanage in Rwanda, or a boy living in a Peruvian village hut, or in any of more than 100 other underserved countries, the modest gifts can make a difference.
It's that time of year, when thousands of families in the Golden Triangle, Mississippi and beyond gather up shoeboxes or similar-sized plastic containers and fill them with inexpensive items for Operation Christmas Child, a unique project of Samaritan's Purse. Since 1993, more than 100 million boys and girls around the world have experienced the power of simple shoebox gifts through the nondenominational Christian humanitarian relief and evangelism ministry.
National Collection Week at all OCC relay and collection centers is Nov. 18-25. That's when families, Scout troops, students, church groups, businesses, civic clubs, sororities, fraternities and individuals who have filled boxes can drop them off. Guidelines for packing a shoebox for designated age groups (2-4, 5-9, 10-14), suggested items, labels and even ideas for packing parties can be found at samaritanspurse.org. A $7 donation per box is requested to help offset the cost of ground shipping and air freight. (A limited supply of pre-printed OCC boxes is available at the First Baptist Church office in Columbus, 202 Seventh St. N.)
Nelda Brown has felt the excitement rippling through a room full of children receiving shoeboxes. She helped distribute in Lima, Peru, on a mission trip with Operation Christmas Child. Brown is area coordinator for OCC's Columbus Collection Center, which takes in shoeboxes at the end of Collection Week from relay centers in Ackerman, Amory, Grenada, Louisville, Macon, Mathiston, Vernon, Ala., West Point and Winona.
"Our goal this year is 30,000 boxes at the Columbus center," said Brown. Last year's total was just under 27,000 boxes. "We had a 15 percent growth last year. If we get 15 percent growth this year, you're going to see me dancing!"
Jack Marshall is coordinator at the Columbus center, located at the Boy Scout Hut in the Hitching Lot Farmers' Market lot at Second Avenue and Second Street North. During Collection Week, volunteers there receive, process, pack in cartons and load thousands of shoeboxes on transport trucks to Atlanta, for the next leg of their journey.
"It's the most fun place you could be and be doing something very, very worthwhile," said Marshall, encouraging others to volunteer, whether they can give a couple of hours or a whole day or more. "We're very active and there's a lot of fellowship -- there's never a dull moment."
When it comes to shopping for items to put in a box, Brown recommends keeping it simple.
"The box is not going to negate a child's poverty, but it will bring them joy and will share the love of Christ," said the volunteer, who recommends packing five or so items appropriate for the age category in each box.
Popular choices include small toys like dolls, cars, balls, harmonicas, jump ropes or hard candy. Hygiene articles like combs, toothbrush and toothpaste, mild bar soap or washcloths are useful. Items such as those are best enclosed in a ziplock bag, which can be a gift in itself.
School supplies are extremely important. "For many children, if they don't have simple paper and pencils they cannot attend school," Brown pointed out. Small flashlights (with extra batteries) and inexpensive solar-powered calculators are good items for older children. Do not include war-related toys, chocolate or food, breakables, medicines or liquids. Visit samaritanspurse.org for additional suggestions.
"People in the field tell us the most valuable gift in a box can be a picture of the individuals sending it and a note," said Brown. If you include your address, you may even get a letter back.
Anyone can get involved. West Point Relay Center coordinator Betty Carpenter told of one box donor in her 80s, who consistently saves boxes and purchases a few items at a time throughout the year.
"She lives on a fixed income, and last year she did about 70 boxes herself," explained Carpenter. "She works on them all year, but it's really important to her to share with these kids."
Spirit of giving
Charlotte Taylor of Starkville has participated in Operation Christmas Child since her son was about 3 years old.
"We wanted to teach him about giving, and this seemed ideal," she said. The family shopped for items together and when time came to fill the shoebox, Taylor was frankly surprised.
"In his own little 3-year-old way, he understood this was for someone who didn't have much," she began. "Any ministry that can touch a child like that has got to be a good one."
Taylor has since become coordinator of the OCC Starkville Relay Center located at Starkville Community Church, 1010 Lynn Lane.
The shoeboxes are not the end of OCC's mission project. They open doors for "The Greatest Journey," a follow-up 12-lesson discipleship program encouraging children to grow in faith. Lives have been changed, and some children, now older, share their moving stories at samaritanspurse.org.
"Operation Christmas Child allows me to become a strong missionary," said Brown, "to reach many, many children I ordinarily could not. The box is not the end, it's the beginning."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.