Blessings in a box delivered around the world
By Sonia Duggan
Since 1993 Christmas joy has been delivered around the world in a shoebox by an organization determined to show God’s love to children in need. Though small in size, these shoebox-sized gifts are packed with the power to deliver hope and the message of Jesus to children 4 to 14 years old.
The incredible box journey begins in the United States thanks to Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. With a determination to change the world by reaching children living in poverty and despair, the OCC ministry is widespread. This year, Samaritan’s Purse collected almost 11.5 million of these shoebox gifts to be delivered to over 100 countries throughout the next 12 months.
With a far-reaching mission such as this one, careful planning stateside makes the box project possible with the help of dedicated volunteers, and just a few employees, both year round and seasonally.
Four years ago Samaritan’s Purse opened a processing center in the area allowing for efficient distribution. Although it is only open for one month each year, this is where volunteers, tape, sort, and inspect the shoeboxes before they are packed on pallets to begin the journey overseas.
Talk to any OCC volunteer and you’ll find a network of people with a passion for the project that is often passed on from generation to generation.
Susan Seibert of Murphy is one of those people. She became involved because of her Dad. His church was one of the first three in the U.S. to become involved in the ministry of Operation Christmas Child.
When Susan’s two daughters were just 2 and 4 years old, she began to teach them how to give back.
“This is a really great way to teach them to be thankful and it felt very doable – especially by two people that are teachers,” she said.
The family, including husband Nick and daughters Aubree and Ashlyn, initially started packing two boxes at Christmas and later graduated to eight, allowing them to do some ‘fun boxes’ as her kids called them. After her Dad passed away, the Seiberts started packing ‘his’ boxes as a way to remember Grandpa. Over time, the number of boxes began to grow as did Susan’s involvement in OCC. In 2016, she became a year round volunteer with the organization as the area coordinator.
Once she became the coordinator, Susan said the process became more efficient. Now they have five volunteers including an administrative assistant, and Susan’s daughter Aubree as a Student Relations volunteer. As part of this dedicated group, Susan and her team have the opportunity to attend Operation Christmas Child conference every spring. This past year was a global conference, and volunteers from 129 different countries were represented.
The volunteer role with OCC, Susan said, encompasses supporting and equipping local groups that pack shoeboxes. In August, they had their first Operation Christmas Child Project Leader Workshop at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen.
When she is not volunteering, Susan is a piano and voice teacher for local youth. As her involvement expanded in OCC and her desire to pack more boxes increased, Susan shopped year round to minimize expenses. She’s become a pro at bargain shopping, hitting clearance racks to look for quality items to stuff inside shoeboxes and sending out emails to fellow shoppers about sales. “This past year I found a really, really nice shopping cart of sandals for $5,” she said.
Quality items are stressed over quantity items for the boxes. Anyone interested in filling boxes can learn from the experts at Samaritan’s Purse and the OCC website. “Have a wow item – an outfit, soccer ball etc. fill every nook and cranny,” she said. School supplies are also important to include in the boxes. “Some children are so poor they can’t go to school because they don’t have a pencil.” In Susan’s group, volunteers use chalkboard paint on the inside of all shoebox lids so kids can draw pictures and write messages. The Seiberts friends and neighbors offer help as well. One friend donated 400 pieces of chalk to make chalk kits that include a soft cloth to use on the lid, a neighbor makes tic-tack-toe games and another friend donated 60 deflated soccer balls.
Storage for box items at her home in Murphy year round requires creativity. Susan said a parent of a student offered her a closet in their home to store items. Having collected – and perfected – buying and packing for OCC the last few years, Susan starts the packing project early to avoid the Christmas rush.
For the past two years, the Seiberts hosted events one weekend in July to start preparing items for the shoeboxes. “We invite people to our house to help make fishing kits, tool kits, sewing kits, pillowcase dresses, soap and washcloth packets, bead crafts, etc.,” she said.
Over the last four years the family’s box totals increased tremendously. From 56 in 2014, 210 in 2015, 461 in 2016, and this year the Seiberts grand total was 921 boxes.
Her initial goal for 2017 was 610 shoebox gifts. Susan said her bargains accounted for 85 percent of the box contents plus 14 families donated additional items. “Toward the end I ask for soap and washcloths to include,” she said.
The weekend of September 21-23 more than 80 volunteers helped pack, working two hour shifts for the fourth annual “Seibert family and friends” OCC packing party. The packing event was held at First Baptist Wylie where the Seiberts are members. Transporting all the merchandise to the church was a feat in itself. “ We literally had six carloads full of stuff that filled rows of 10-12 tables long.”
The first night of the packing party the free medical clinic event was being held at the church. Unknown to Susan and the volunteers, a woman named Cinthia, a native of Honduras, was at the clinic with her children. Cinthia immediately recognized the boxes having received one as a child.
“When she saw the OCC logo and the shoeboxes stacked against the wall, she began to cry. You see, she received a shoebox as a young girl along with her sister in Honduras many years ago. I had chills and was in tears. To see her emotion over a gift from so many years ago, just goes to show what an impact a simple shoebox gift can make. I invited her and her kids to pack a shoebox, which she was more than thrilled to do. This was God’s amazing birthday present to me on Thursday night,” Susan said.
After that September weekend, thanks to Susan’s family, her OCC team, her FBCW Growth Group family, friends, neighbors, and even several students, the Seibert team packed 811 shoeboxes. Thankfully, Jon Bailey, missions pastor for FBW, allowed Susan to store the packed boxes at the church until collection week. She was not finished, however, they had simply run out of time. “We finished the last 110 at my house,” she said. “Now we are trying to raise money for the $8,000 in shipping fees through an online fundraising page approved by Samaritan’s Purse.”
As a pastor, Bailey knows the impact of the boxes having traveled to some of the countries where the boxes are sent, and he is passionate about First Baptist Wylie’s role in OCC. The church has been involved in the mission for a long time but they wanted to do more this year. “We wanted to step up support of the ministry,” Bailey said.
And step up they did. Bailey reached out to Matt Smith, a member with some history for the mission, and for the first time, the church became a drop-off point in Collin County for OCC.
Smith, a pastor’s son, said he took the job in honor of his mother who used OCC as her ministry when she got sick. “By the time of her death she had already packed 600 boxes,” he said.
When Smith attended Susan’s OCC training at Cottonwood Creek, he said he heard the powerful story of an adult, who, at the age of 14, received a box when he was an orphan in Russia. “It was the first gift he had ever received in his life,” Smith recalled. “He (the orphan) remembered getting a bar of Irish Spring soap and loving the smell. He hid the bar of soap under his pillow at night.”
As the volunteer coordinator for the church, Smith organized church members who manned tables daily during the November donation week. They offered support, videos and materials for anyone delivering one box, 100 boxes or more. As a church, over 1,000 boxes were accepted by church members to fill for the children and around 1,400 were handed out at Boo on Ballard in October.
The annual collection drive is held the third week of November countrywide. Local churches and groups that participated delivered their boxes to First Baptist Wylie, and according to Smith, as a drop-off site they collected 4,070 boxes. The church family had a goal of 1,000 shoeboxes, estimating they would collect another 1,000 or so from drop-offs, but Smith said they more than doubled the estimate. Groups such as youth from That Wylie Band delivered 200 filled boxes, an increase in their goal from last year.
“It’s one of the most amazing ministries. The boxes reach over 100 countries – some unnamed, and some boxes penetrate the borders,” Smith said. “It was so exciting we got to be a part of it. I’m definitely up for helping out again next year.”
The 4,070 boxes at FBW were delivered to Trinity Bible Church in Plano last week and counted and checked before going to the distribution center in Grapevine.
Volunteer needs for OCC reach far beyond the church or group level. The distribution center is operated almost entirely by volunteers. FBW member Lisa Pendley of Sachse and her sons have been helping at the OCC processing center for four years.
“My oldest son, Ricky, went on a mission trip in 2012 and was able to deliver the shoeboxes to an orphanage in Ecuador. The joy he witnessed had moved him so much that when he came back home, he signed us up as a family the following Christmas to volunteer at the processing center, “ she said. “It’s also a great way for my sons to see that joy could be brought to a child in a package as small as a shoebox.”
Each shoebox costs $9 to ship through Operation Christmas Child. This is a deal according to Susan, who said it would typically cost more than $40 to ship each shoebox through the post office. The $9 shipping fee pays for the gospel booklets that are given to each child in their own language, the training materials for local churches and pastors, and the costs involved with processing and shipping the shoeboxes.
The shoeboxes are powerful. Not only for the children but for the volunteers involved in the ministry. “The reason we volunteer is, as Christians, we should spread God’s word through our time and our gifts,” Lisa said.
Love, gifts and the gospel of Jesus Christ are shared, most often with a child who has never received a gift in their lifetime. Items included in shoeboxes range from simple hygiene items most people take for granted such as a personal (not community) toothbrush, washcloth, soap or shampoo, to clothing and accessories like socks, underwear, shoes, socks and simple pillowcase sundresses. Books, balls, quality toys, craft and school items are the icing on the cake, except, of course, for the family photos, personal notes and drawings from their brother and sisters through Christ in the United States.
“A shoebox that is filled with trinkets, a toothbrush, and a picture of a family from across the world,” Lisa said. “True Christmas spirit!”