By Debbie Adams
Lynn Haven Baptist Church in Vinton is once again serving as a Relay Center (drop-off location) for Operation Christmas Child. This year the church received over 1,700 shoeboxes to be distributed to children around the world.
Operation Christmas Child is an international project sponsored by the Samaritan’s Purse organization, which sends gift-filled shoeboxes around the world to children living in the midst of poverty, war, disease, or natural disaster. Empty shoeboxes are transformed into “gifts of hope,” filled by donors with toys, school supplies, hygiene items, art supplies, hats, scarves, clothing, and other small items,
Area churches participating in the project dropped off their shoeboxes at Lynn Haven during National Collection Week between November 15 and 22 this year. Volunteers at the church then packed the boxes into cartons for delivery to Salem Baptist Church, the central drop-off point in the region. Collegiate Movers has been hauling the boxes to Salem for the past three years.
At Salem Baptist, volunteers including many Virginia State Troopers, loaded the boxes onto tractor-trailers for delivery to the Operation Christmas Child processing center in Boone or Charlotte, N.C. The gifts are shipped from there to over 100 countries around the world.
Lynn Haven Baptist has been serving as a drop-off point for Operation Christmas Child for six years (one of over 4500 across the nation) and prepared shoebox gifts for many years before that, according to Shirley Hall, who coordinates the project at the church, along with Nancy Bowser. Hall has been to visit the processing center in Boone twice and says the warehouse is “huge” and very impressive.
“We are thankful for all those who participate in giving children something to look forward to,” said Hall. For some children, this is the first gift they have ever received and is meant to send a message that God loves them. While children in the United States seem to receive an overabundance of gifts, these children don’t and will always remember their shoebox gift and those who sent it.
Hall’s daughter, Katie Saunders, grew up in Lynn Haven Baptist and has an interesting story to tell about one of the shoeboxes she packed years ago.
In 2003, she took part in a 10-day mission trip to Armenia with First Baptist Church. The last day of the trip was not going well; she and her fellow missionaries were not being well received in the community where they were knocking on doors to share their faith. In fact, they had some doors slammed in their faces. According to Saunders, at the last home on the last day, a little girl opened the door and was so excited to see the “Americans” she had heard were in the area.
The small apartment was crowded with the girl, her parents, siblings, and members of her extended family. The child talked about a gift she had received from America several months before. She brought out a shoebox wrapped in blue snowman paper filled with gifts she had received.
Saunders recognized it as the shoebox she had packed—containing a Beanie Baby Monkey she and her father had argued about placing in the box. The monkey apparently had become the child’s favorite toy. All were amazed when Saunders explained that she had packed the very box which the little girl across the world in Armenia had received.
“It was amazing to know that the gospel had been shared and the family came to know Jesus through a shoebox of gifts sent months before,” said Saunders.
This year, volunteers worked at Lynn Haven for over a week to package the boxes as they were delivered to them from churches, organizations, and individuals around the area. Donations have come in from Vinton Baptist (387 as of Nov. 20), Mount Pleasant Baptist (75 boxes), Mason’s Cove Baptist (75), Gospel Light Baptist on Cloverdale Road (501), along with the 400+ from Lynn Haven.
One couple who brought in a box had heard about Operation Christmas Child while on vacation at the beach, gathered up gifts when they got back home, and Googled to find the closest location for drop-off, which turned out to be Lynn Haven.
In 2020, Operation Christmas Child faced some challenges due to the pandemic. Volunteers were masked and gloved as the shoeboxes arrived; in some instances, those donating the boxes did not want to come into the church or even leave their cars to deliver the shoeboxes, so the volunteers went to the cars to accept the gifts.
Participants are asked to pack the shoeboxes for a certain gender and age group (ages 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14).
Suggestions include personal care items such as a toothbrush, hairbrush, comb, band-aids, reusable plastic containers (like water bottles, cups, or plates) or a blanket. Clothing and accessory items include shirts or pants, hats, shoes, socks, underwear, mittens, sunglasses, hairbows, pocketbooks, or flashlights.
Craft or school items might include pencils, markers, crayons, coloring books, notebooks, picture books, puzzles, a sewing kit, and glue sticks.
Participants are asked to include a “Wow” item such as dolls, soccer balls, stuffed animals, an outfit of clothing, a backpack, toy trucks, a small musical instrument, plastic tools or dinosaurs, or an Etch a Sketch.
Lynn Haven has an ongoing Blanket Ministry program and volunteers use some of the leftover fleece fabric to make scarves to include in the gift boxes.
The shoebox gifts can be packed in actual shoeboxes or in plastic containers; Operation Christmas child even has a “Build a Shoebox Online” program in which participants can shop online for gifts which will be placed in a shoebox for distribution. Many of those gifts go to hard-to-reach areas around the globe.
No candy, gum, liquids or lotions, aerosols, food, toothpaste (it might be eaten), breakables, or scary or war toys are permitted.
Participants are encouraged to enclose a personal note for the child destined to receive the box and to “pray without ceasing” for the recipient. They are also asked to enclose $9 to cover shipping and delivery costs.
According to Operation Christmas Child, the organization had its beginnings in 1983 with Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham who received a call from a man in England asking if he’d be willing to fill shoeboxes with gifts for children in war-torn Bosnia. Franklin agreed, but figured Christmas was months away. He forgot about the promise until he received a call around Thanksgiving asking about the gifts.
Franklin asked his friend, the late Pastor Ross Rhoads of Calvary Church of Charlotte to see if he could help with the need. A Sunday shortly afterward, Pastor Rhoads demonstrated for his congregation how to fill a shoebox with simple gifts and encouraged them to include a letter to the child as well. Within weeks, the church had 11,000 shoeboxes lining their hallways.
Due to their generosity and additional gifts from Canada, Samaritan’s Purse sent 28,000 shoebox gifts to children in the Balkans that Christmas.
Every year since, Samaritan’s Purse has collected shoebox gifts for children around the world. Since 1993, more than 188 million children in more than 170 countries and territories have received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox.
In 2020 alone, more than 9.1 million Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts were collected throughout Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.