|TWIN CITIES — The world’s largest Christmas project begins with one shoe box gift. One person committed to bringing hope to a child in need. Contagious compassion quickly spreads and soon 8 million shoe box gifts are on their way to children suffering from war, terrorism, disease, natural disaster, famine and poverty in more than 100 countries.
“From Minnesota with love,” could be stamped on each box as it begins its journey of hope from the compassionate giver to the grins and giggles of children, some who are receiving a gift for the first time. A gift packed with the best gift of all—hope.
The year-round project called Operation Christmas Child starts right after Christmas for Marilyn Zinker, Bev Schmitt and their friends, poised to snatch up Christmas wrap when it is 75 percent off. During the winter months, this band of friends set and meet their quota of wrapped shoe boxes. Year-round they scour the Twin Cities for specials and deals and in the fall help with packing the boxes. However, the message of hope is never far from Zinker and her friends.
“To me a shoe box equals gospel opportunities,” Zinker said.
“My heart is for the children,” added Schmitt, of Brooklyn Park. “For every three boxes, one child comes to Christ and between 10 and 15 family members are influenced. So many need to be reached by the gospel. (We) hear back that the children are most grateful for the school supplies. We pray each year that God will provide the contents of the boxes. We pray over each box and for each child.”
Dorothy Clark of Maplewood gets her many empty shoe boxes from a local department store and uses a neighbor’s storage space to keep completed boxes until it is time to turn them in to Operation Christmas Child.
“Every box gets a fluffy toy—even for the boys, just to have something fluffy and soft with them can be comforting in the dark nights.” said Clark, who has gone from packing 17 boxes about six years ago to the more than 300 shoe boxes she is working on this year.
“Making a shoe box gift is a very tangible way to tell a hurting child a world away that they are not forgotten—and that message of hope can be life-changing,” said Sheri Wood, Twin Cities area volunteer coordinator for Operation Christmas Child.
Kids are ready to deck the halls for Operation Christmas Child and to learn an important lesson while packing hope into every box. “Modeling generosity” is the primary lesson says Kathy Anderson, teacher at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis and the school’s coordinator of Operation Christmas Child.
“Nearly every student packs a shoe box at Minnehaha Academy. While some say the parents really are the ones buying the gifts, children are watching us,” she said.
Minnehaha Academy kids tell about participating in Operation Christmas Child:
“I made it ‘cuz when it is sent overseas it goes to a little girl who appreciates it and will use everything for as long as she can,” said Kitra, a 5th grade student at Minnehaha.
“It’s fun and it helps other people,” 4th grade student Sara added.
This “kids-helping-kids” effort, a project of international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse headed by Franklin Graham, starts with a simple shoe box filled with toys, necessity items, school supplies, candy and often hand-written notes of encouragement.
“This is a wonderful chance to teach children in this country about generosity and compassion, and bring hope and joy to hurting children in other countries,” said Nicole Sheldon, Upper Midwest regional director for Operation Christmas Child.
Hope Christian Academy, located in St. Paul Park, has packed boxes for the past 12 years. For eight years, students who are 13 and older have volunteered at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Center.
“The students are amazed to see how huge the project is,” said Principal Randy Krussow. “They have an opportunity to see what their small part plays in a big project that will impact the world.”
“It is a very easy thing to do,” said Troop 50400 Girl Scout leader, Nancy Olson, whose troop have packed shoe box gifts for eight years. “The girls really like that they are packing a shoe box for an individual, specific child even though they do not know him or her.”
Most of the gifts are packed in the plastic shoe, which serves as a vessel to carry water.
“Around the holidays, I really become thankful for everything that I have,” said Girl Scout Bayley Kinner. “I volunteer because I like to think about how happy it makes a small child who gets an Operation Christmas Child gift. It must make them feel special knowing that someone that they have never met cares for them and wants them to be happy.”
Supplied with treats for the processing center workers—lefse, peanut brittle and chocolate chip cookies prepared by the ladies of the church—and Christmas-themed ninja headbands, 120 members from the Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church in the Fargo/Moorhead-area head southeast to Operation Christmas Child’s Upper Midwest Processing Center in the Twin Cities.
“We have really cold and brutal winters but our hearts are warm!” said Pastor Kirk Militzer.
And a monster size love of the Lord. The unique, creative retreat, for some 225 adults and kids from six churches, begins Friday night at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Center. The fellowship and festive nature of the processing center is permeated with prayer and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies.
“I pray that each student who attends will wrestle with the thought of a child coming up to them in heaven someday and saying ‘It was your box that began my journey of coming to Christ,’” Militzer said.
After volunteering Friday evening and Saturday morning at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Center, the Lutheran Brethren crew heads to Oak Hills church in Bloomington for a time of praise and worship. The students share their stories about interaction with the boxes and how they really are packed with love and hope. The group overlays the countries where Operation Christmas Child is sending the boxes and the countries where Christians are persecuted as identified by Voice of the Martyrs.
“We pray for those countries to open the door to the gospel,” Militzer said. “We pray for the kids who will receive the boxes and that God is going to open up doors for the good news of Jesus through ministries, churches and missionaries.”
The group then heads back to the hotel to process the impact of the boxes on their lives, the lives of children around the world and the life of the Christian Church.
Saturday evening everyone heads to the Mall of America–not to shop—but to study the eight great questions from “The World is My Classroom.” The students and adults are taken from this incredibly uplifting spiritual experience and placed right in the middle of the world.
“We do this on purpose. It is an opportunity to wrestle with questions that followers of Jesus are called to think about,” Militzer said.
The five other churches include Lutheran Brethren Minnesota churches from Hope Lutheran Brethern church in Barnsville, Elim Lutheran in Osakis, Community of Joy in Eagan, Oak Hill Lutheran Brethren Church in Bloomington, and Bethel Lutheran Brethren in Grand Forks.
Hope can appear when you least expect it. When the McEachern family of St. Michael traveled to Russia to bring home their adopted daughter, Nadia, there was great excitement at the orphanage. This was no ordinary day; boxes from America had arrived.
As the McEachern family toured the school and visited room after room of happy children, it dawned on them what this event was.
“I started to cry,” said Teri McEachern. “We all cried. The headmaster was extremely distressed to see us all crying about gifts from America. I tried to communicate that we pack these boxes. We have packed shoe box gifts for over 10 years. Here we are in Russia and our child is receiving an Operation Christmas Child shoe box gift.”
McEachern said people like Operation Christmas Child because it is “concrete and very simple.”
“You can put your own personality and creativity in every box,” she said. “It is something everyone can do. After seeing the positive effect that receiving a shoe box gift has on kids, my thoughts now are on what is the best thing to pack that will make the most impact. ”
Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered hope in the form of shoe box gifts to more than 61 million hurting children in some 130 countries. Staff and volunteers use whatever means necessary—ships, trucks, buses, trains, airplanes, helicopters, boats, camels, even dog sleds—to reach suffering children.
For Minnesota teens Nadia, Kola, Klava and Ted, Operation Christmas Child has special meaning. The teens were adopted from the same orphanage in Russia where they actually received shoe box gifts. They are a full-circle story of hope. Having experienced the hope and joy of a simple gift, they now pack shoe boxes for needy children around the world.
“I was really surprised and so excited about getting the shoe box gifts. We didn’t get birthday or Christmas presents as kids in the orphanage, so when they gave us the shoe box gift it was really special,” said Nadia McEachern, who has participated in Operation Christmas Child since she joined her new family three years ago. “My favorite gift was the doll, as soon as I saw it, it was like my baby.”
“It was really a joyful thing to see all the wonderful things people packed in the box,” said Kola Schultz of Dayton. “I know how the kids who get the gifts will feel when they open their shoe box gift and how they will feel loved by all the people who are packing them.”
“My favorite thing in my shoe box gift was a jump rope. We had lots of free time at the orphanage and it was nice to have something to do,” said Klava Foreman of Maple Lake, whose family has packed shoe box gifts for over 10 years.
“Man, somebody really cares about us to give 300 shoe boxes to kids in an orphanage. That was really cool. Just to have your own stuff,” said Ted Foreman of Maple Lake, whose family packs shoe boxes and also volunteers at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Center.
Ted said the cost to pack a shoe box is “cheap but it means a lot. Lots of kids will receive boxes that have nothing. It is a good ministry. God can use it to reach a child by showing them compassion and that he cares.”
Gift suggestions from Minnesota teens who received gifts
• Nadia McEachern packs gifts in her shoe box that she liked, or the kids in the orphanage liked, such as: art supplies, hair stuff for girls and stickers.
• Kola Schultz and his family pack their gifts in plastic shoe boxes because he knows it is fun to have a preview of the contents before opening the box. Kola includes crayons, notebooks and colored pencils so kids can draw and write. A lot of kids in the orphanage liked to draw and write,” he said.
• Klava Foreman said she likes to add a jump rope and doll to her shoe box gifts.
“I know some girl will love them,” she said. “These are the gifts that made me feel good.”
• Ted Foreman packs yoyos, flashlights, playing cards and hard candy.
For a full list of gift ideas and guidelines, visit www.samaritanspurse.org.
Minnesota residents can deliver their shoe box gifts to one of 50 drop-off locations throughout the state during National Collection Week, Nov. 17-24. Visit www.samaritanspurse.org or call (612) 359-7025 or (800) 353-5949 for information on how to pack a shoe box gift and for the nearest drop-off location.