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By SUZANNE DARLAND
Take a shoebox, the cardboard or plastic variety.
Fill it with some toys, school supplies, candy, and maybe socks from a local discount store.
Now ship it to a country where children have little access to the basic needs of survival, let alone a new doll or toy car.
That’s the premise behind Operation Christmas Child, headed by Franklin Graham, evangelist Billy Graham’s son. Since 1993, more than 77 million of these boxes have been sent to 130 countries on six continents.
Our church has joined hundreds of thousands of others in collecting these Christmas-wrapped shoeboxes each November to transport them to one of seven centers where they’re prepared for overseas shipment. Several years ago we took it a step further to volunteer in one of the centers in Boone, N.C., to help ready the boxes for travel in trucks, sea containers and cargo planes.
This year, eight of us went to Atlanta in early December to spend a couple of days doing the same thing.
It’s a very efficient operation. Sixty or so stations are set up in a huge warehouse filled with hundreds of volunteers, from teens to senior adults. At each station stand four people. One opens each shoebox looking for money. Operation Christmas Child asks for $7 for each shoebox to help pay the cost of shipping. Once a pallet of shoeboxes reaches its destination, it still must travel by truck, canoe or even camel to a remote village.
Two others examine the shoeboxes for inappropriate items. Those might include liquids that could leak, like bubbles or shampoo. Or glass that could break, like snow globes or mirrors. War toys are also banned, as are medications and chocolate that could melt. And no packaged foods like cookies or chips, only candy. And only new toys are accepted. Some in our group confiscated several baseballs that came with notes that a local AAA team had used them.
If some items are removed, they’re replaced with other items from bins at the station.
Then someone else seals the box shut and makes sure there’s a label on it designating the box for a girl or boy and whether he or she is 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14 years of age.
I worked with half a dozen of us who took the sealed boxes from four stations and packed them into shipping boxes. At least 14 have to fit in each box marked boy or girl and one of the age ranges. And that was a fun challenge.
Not all shoe boxes are created equal, we learned. Women’s sandals and men’s Durango boots call for different-sized boxes. And the plastic shoe boxes, favored because children can use them for storage after they’ve opened their gifts, also come in all sizes.
We’d start a box with four rows of three shoe boxes on end, but then would come a massive box that was too tall or wide and we’d have to start all over. Our supervisors urged us to be creative, turning boxes upside down to take advantage of a lid that would slide in next to another going the other way. Or to squeeze in a last box tightly, several hands shoving aside the other boxes to make room.
Over our four-hour shift, we got into a rhythm: open boxes, set on top of the shelf for the next volunteer at the station to take. Hearing the rip of the sealing tape, then putting the boxes in the right stack for fitting into a box for 10-14 year old girls or 2-4 year old boys. We learned to pack the bigger boxes first, saving the smaller ones for sliding into tight spaces. We’d give each other high fives for solving a particularly troublesome puzzle.
A few stations down from us, a group of 28 teenagers from a church in Dothan, Ala., cheered every time the money seeker of the group found an envelope or some cash in a shoe box. Christian music was blaring from speakers.
Other volunteers took away the contraband items to be donated to Atlanta-area ministries. Or brought fresh buckets of pencils and candy and socks.
In the rhythm and the sounds and the sense that we were doing something of great magnitude, we prayed for the boys and girls in 100 countries like Benin and Ecuador and Iraq who would receive eight million of these shoe boxes this year. We imagined their faces: brown, tan, ruddy, freckled. We pictured their toothy grins as they pulled the lids off their boxes and peered inside.
Some would have never received a gift before in their lives.
Some who live drab, colorless lives would open a box of colorful hair bows and crayons and bouncy balls and stuffed animals.
Some who are in war-torn areas would know that someone from across the ocean cared for them. Many families enclose notes and pictures in their shoe boxes.
Some who live in refugee camps would know hope. All of the boxes are delivered with a Scripture portion in the children’s native language. Samaritan’s Purse partners with missionaries and native churches of many denominations to distribute the boxes to orphanages and schools where a Christian witness is already in place.
A man from nearby Evansville, Ga., who helped our group play 3D Tetris with the shipping boxes said he had brought his teenagers to the warehouse so they could glimpse a larger world without the amenities we take for granted.
But he admitted it wasn’t just the teenagers who needed to see that.
Suzanne Darland is associate professor of English and journalism and adviser to The Street, the student newspaper at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.