By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – Several local volunteers shopped for special Christmas gifts long before Black Friday, filling plastic shoe boxes for children a world away and delivering hope with a simple act of kindness.
Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a worldwide religious-based aid organization since 1970, sends age-appropriate gift boxes to impoverished children around the world to show them someone cares about them, and to share the message of the Gospel in the recipient’s language.
Throughout the United States, volunteers at local collection sites gather gift-filled plastic shoe boxes from individuals and groups the third week of November, and pack the containers into larger cardboard shipping cartons to a central screening center before shipment overseas.
Fairlane Alliance Church manned a storefront collection center next door to the church, and Calvary Baptist Church ran a collection site at South Winds Golf Club in Southgate.
While physical collection of gift boxes has ended for this year, online donations may be made at samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child/buildonline.
The Rev. Andrew Conway of Fairlane Alliance Church said his congregation serves as collection site volunteers in the spirit of Christmas giving.
“We believe that God gave his son as a gift, and so that’s what Christmas is about, giving,” Conway said, “The people at Fairlane are just doing their part, which is logistics, giving our time and organization.”
Conway said dozens of churches across Wayne County pack gift boxes that will go overseas, and individuals donate as well. He said there are thousands of collection sites in the United States, and last year about 10 million shoe boxes were sent to children around the world.
Volunteering with Operation Christmas Child helps people remember what the holiday is all about, Conway said.
“It makes us thankful for what we have, when you think about the resources in other countries,” Conway said.
He said they collect items like small toys, toothbrushes and school supplies all year long, and purchase items when they are on sale. He said they prefer to use the plastic shoe boxes, which will be usable longer than cardboard boxes.
Janet Gleichauf of Dearborn, who volunteers at the collection center, said the shoe boxes also are packed with toiletries, hair ribbons, brushes, combs, toothpaste, and small toys that can fit into the container. Labels indicate the intended gender and age range for each gift box.
It costs about $7 to ship each box, Gleichauf said, and they encourage people who donate filled gift boxes to donate the shipping cost if possible. If not, other volunteers may “adopt a box” and pay for the shipping of a box filled by another volunteer.
Gleichauf said the 53-foot semi-trailer truck parked in front of the collection center would be filled with shipping cartons containing shoe boxes by the end of the collection week, and would be delivered to a processing facility in Minneapolis for inspection and sorting.
She said some donors don’t pay attention to the list of allowable items, and the national processing facility removes items like chocolate that would melt, liquids that could spill on the box contents, and toy weapons and soldiers.
Conway said boxes are sent to places like China, India, Africa and South America.
He said a student from India studying at the University of Michigan helped pack boxes this year because 15 years ago, when she was 12, she received a shoe box through Operation Christmas Child.
“It was so exciting because she decided she wanted to come and help to pack,” Gleichauf said. “She is married and studying here now. Having her here was so exciting because we got to hear first-hand from somebody who had received their box.”
Conway said the past recipient said it was the first time she had ever received a gift from someone she did not know, and for many of the child recipients, it is the first time they have ever received a gift.
“For most of the kids who get these boxes, they are in poorer parts of the world,” Conway said. “To us, it’s small things, like little toys, and things like that, but to them, it may be the only gift they get in the year or the only gift they have ever gotten, so it is a really big deal for them.”
Conway said the gifts won’t reach the recipients by Christmas, because the are shipped by boat around the world.
Gleichauf said when volunteers fit shoe boxes into large cartons at the local collection center, prayer is part of their packing ritual.
“That’s important to us, to pray over the boxes, and pray for our truck driver,” Gleichauf said. “Sometimes they just pick up our stuff and don’t know what’s on the truck, what it is, what it means. We share that with the truck driver, and they are kind of in awe about that.”
Gleichauf said packing the cartons is not a sit-down job, and the volunteers are always on the move. She said that even though they keep busy, the joy of the young recipients is often on their minds.
Volunteer Alice Waldron of Melvindale makes an effort to recruit new participants each year.
“I have seen it grow over the years, with more boxes coming in,” Waldron said. “It gets bigger every year. Last year we had 10,197 boxes that were put onto our truck. I always want to set a bigger goal.”
Sandra Nader of Dearborn said when she recruits new participants, she mentions filling shoe boxes for the less fortunate is a good family project because it helps children focus less on their wants and more on the needs of others.
“During Christmastime, kids have their lists of what they like, and what they want,” Nader said. “This opens up the world for them, and (they) see there are poor children who don’t have much of anything, even a bar of soap, a toothbrush with toothpaste, a little sweater, clothes – gloves that we take for granted that they need.”
Nader said this realization helps local children packing gift shoe boxes more grateful for what they have.
“It’s a blessing for them, too, because not only do they bless these (recipient) children, but they’re blessed as well, for giving these gifts,” Nader said, “and they’ll see things differently, and they won’t take things so ungratefully.”