Boxing up hope

Local families bring Christmas joy to more than 18,000 children around the world

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Spreading hope: The gift-filled shoeboxes collected for Operation Christmas Child contain one “wow” item, school supplies and basic hygiene items. Many times, these are things we take for granted, like a toothbrush, that are life changing for a child on the other side of the world. Photo: Samaritan’s Purse

Everyone deserves a little love this holiday season, especially children. But what happens when a family doesn’t have the means to provide a magical Christmas? Or when their community is fighting famine and starvation? To bring these kids some hope, a number of big-hearted Bucks County locals collected a record-breaking 18,000 shoeboxes filled with toys, school supplies and basic hygiene items as part of Operation Christmas Child.

This holiday initiative began in 1993 under the umbrella of Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational evangelical Christian organization dedicated to aiding the world’s poor, sick and suffering. Volunteers visit areas of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine to bring food, medicine and other assistance to those in need.

The goal of Operation Christmas Child is simple.

“It’s a way to show a little bit of hope and Christmas joy and cheer,” said Christy Stokes, the project’s logistics coordinator.

Throughout National Collection Week, which ended on Nov. 20, millions of shoeboxes were collected at drop-off locations both nationally and internationally in Canada, England and a number of other countries. According to Stokes, the initiative has significantly grown since its creation, with more than 146 million gift-filled shoeboxes delivered to more than 160 countries and territories over the past 24 years.

Stokes is particularly proud of the Bensalem community and its surrounding areas. Local participants generously collected a record-breaking 18,000 gift-filled shoeboxes, an increase from last year’s 11,800, to help remind children around the world they are loved and not forgotten.

Energy surrounding the project was at an all-time high. School districts and Boy and Girl Scout troops collected items, residents gathered to handcraft toys and local supermarkets and even a Chick-fil-A became drop-off locations.

“It’s sweet to see people get excited,” Stokes said. “They really have a heart for these children.”

So what exactly goes into these thousands of shoeboxes? According to Stokes, each contains one “wow” item that’s sure to make a child’s face light up. This item should be something the donor would give their own child, such as a Barbie doll or soccer ball, that they put care and thought into.

The remaining space is filled with basic school supplies and hygiene items. Stokes explained how in some countries, children aren’t permitted to attend class unless they have the necessary supplies. She also reflected on one boy who was thrilled over receiving a toothbrush. Before his shoebox arrived, he had to share his with siblings.

“It’s something that’s so easy for us but so special for them,” she said.

Participants were encouraged to include a personalized note to show the child that a real person picked each item just for them. It was also recommended to spend a moment praying or reflecting over the box, asking for its recipient to feel a sense of hope this holiday season.

“You give a child something to show that people on the other side of the planet care,” Stokes said.

At the end of National Collection Week, more than 5,000 drop-off location volunteers helped gather, sort and send almost 10 million filled shoeboxes to eight processing centers. Samitarian’s Purse is headquartered in Boone, North Carolina, but all boxes collected in Bucks County and throughout the Delaware Valley went to a more convenient location in Baltimore, Maryland. From there, they were distributed around the world to kids most in need. For many, the shoebox will be the first gift they’ve ever received.

Each year, Operation Christmas Child provides shoeboxes to at least 100 different countries. Primarily, they go to areas of war, famine and instability. If one particular area is suffering more than others, for example if a natural disaster recently struck, it will receive the most donations.

“They go wherever the need is the greatest,” Stokes said.

Collections have finished for the season, but Operation Christmas Child is still welcoming people to pack shoeboxes online. Those interested can browse samaritanspurse.org/buildonline to select gifts matched to a child’s specific age and gender, then finish packing the virtual shoebox by adding a photo and personal note of encouragement. They can also donate $9 per online shoebox through “Follow Your Box.” After receiving a tracking label, they can follow the box’s journey until it reaches its destination.

Another way to participate is by purchasing a $25 gift card for a family member or friend so they can get involved in Operation Christmas Child by packing a shoebox online. For more information, call 410–772–7360 or visit samaritanspurse.org/occ.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com