Virtual shoeboxes offers opportunity to change lives

December 15, 2012

LIMA — For many people, packing a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child is a holiday tradition.

However, for those who missed the Nov. 12 to 19 collection week, can’t get out, or don’t have the time, Operation Christmas Child introduced the virtual shoebox in 2010.

“The build-a-box tool was meant to be a convenient way for those who might be unable to pack a box due to health problems, don’t have a place nearby to shop or whatever to still get a get a box to a needy child,” explained Brittany Smith, media relations associate for Samaritan’s Purse, the non-profit organization that runs Operation Christmas Child. “It also was meant to reach a different demographic — people like college students who are very busy but are also tech savvy.”

The virtual shoebox process is very simple. Participants can go to Then, as with the regular shoeboxes, they can indicate whether it should go to a girl or a boy and what age bracket. There are several ages from which to choose, from toddlers to young teens. Then, they can simply click on the various listed items from different categories such as toiletries or toys to fill the box.

“Operation Christmas Child receives orders for the online boxes through the end of the year,” said Smith. “Then they pack them at the beginning of the year — around January or February. All the orders for the build-a-box are filled from the Charlotte processing center.”

The virtual boxes make up only a small percentage of the shoeboxes sent out, but Smith said that Samaritan’s Purse is hoping those numbers grow. According to Smith, last year there were 11,000 shoeboxes ordered through the build-a-box tool while 9 million actual boxes were given through the traditional route of people packing and sending them.

In Lima, more than 12,000 boxes were donated to four different drop-off points in November. Currently, those boxes, along with other boxes donated from around the country, are being processed. The boxes are shipped to one of seven processing warehouses around the country. There volunteers, of which there are 60,000 nationwide, inspect each box to make sure the items are appropriate and the box is full. Then the boxes are taped back up, loaded onto a truck and shipped to a specific location.

“The countries they go to kind of depends,” said Smith. “They change each year based on needs, but there are over 100 different countries that these boxes go to each year.”

Linda Hickman, Lima area coordinator for Samaritan’s Purse, has been volunteering with Operation Christmas Child for the past 12 years. She averages about 15 hours a week, but during the end of October and into November, those hours jump to almost 40 hours per week.

“That’s our busiest time of the year,” she said. “There’s collection week and then there’s the training of the relay centers. I’m responsible for nine counties and that means training five different teams, recruiting volunteers, coordinating the efforts that go on in those nine counties and the various teams.”

This year is a mile stone year for Operation Christmas Child. “This is a very important year,” said Smith. “(Dec. 5), in the Dominican Republic, we delivered the 100 millionth box.”

The concept of Operation Christmas Child began in 1990 with a Welsh couple named David and Jill Cooke. They saw a broadcast about a Romanian orphanage and wanted to do something tangible to help them. That year, they started a campaign in their community to help kids in Romania by collecting medical supplies, food, clothing and Christmas gifts. In 1993, Franklin Graham, international president of Samaritan’s Purse, partnered with them, and Operation Christmas Child was born.

Smith said that the popularity of Operation Christmas Child is because of the simplicity of the idea.

“It gives people the opportunity to touch kids around the world and bring them joy,” she said.

Once the boxes reach their destination, a few staff members partner with local pastors and volunteers to pass out the boxes. According to Smith, less than 1 percent of the shoeboxes are given out by Samaritan’s Purse staff or volunteers. The rest is all done by local volunteers and churches in those countries.

Passing out the boxes is a highlight for the staff and volunteers who have been able to go on these trips.

“Everyone talks about the joy and excitement of the kids,” said Smith. “They give them the boxes and do a count down. People say hearing the laughter of the kids when they open them — they never forget that.”

While toiletries and school supplies may not seem like that big of a deal, for a child in poverty, a gift of a shoebox can make a huge impact.

“We are now getting to hear from adults who got shoeboxes as children,” said Smith. “For most, it was the first time they had ever received a gift and it meant so much to them that someone cared enough to give them a gift.”

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Operation Christmas Child