When you purchase a new pair of shoes, do you ever think about the shoebox? Usually the shoebox is discarded and ends up in a landfill or put in a dark closet next to other shoeboxes. However, a better more fulfilling life awaits your shoebox.
We recently wrote a story about a local church (Fellowship Baptist Church in Brooksville) that participated in Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child. Every month church members collected certain items that were packed into shoeboxes and then sent to a processing facility in the US to be made ready for shipment to a needy child somewhere in the world. So you see, your shoebox has the potential to do much more than just sit in the closet or disintegrate at the landfill. It can bring a child in a war-torn or poverty stricken country essential toiletries, reading and writing materials or a toy that gives them joy. However, the main function of the shoebox is to deliver knowledge of God's love.
Let us follow the shoebox in this important journey.
After the shoebox has been packed with donation items, it leaves the church, community organization or business, packed with a number of other boxes and arrives at one of eight processing facilities in the United States located in Atlanta, GA; Boone, NC; Southern California, Baltimore, MD, Charlotte, NC; Aurora, Colorado; Dallas Fort Worth and Minneapolis.
During National Collection Week, the third week in November, there are over 5000 shoebox drop off locations open across the country so that collecting organizations don't have too far to travel.
The eight processing facilities are manned by volunteers from all over the US who have signed up months in advance. In Boone, the smallest processing center, they are expecting to have 8000 volunteers this year. The Boone packing facility has 18 tables of 12 volunteers apiece who busily sort and pack each shoebox bound for the designated country. Gale, a Samaritan's Purse tour guide, described the atmosphere as "organized chaos to the tune of Silent Night." They anticipate that all boxes will be received and processed by December 14th.
There are dozens of other countries that collect and process donations and shoeboxes in this manner. They are referred to as "collecting countries." The countries where boxes are shipped are called "receiving countries" and there are hundreds of them. Worldwide and domestically, the organization is hoping to process 12.3 million boxes this year. Last year they collected and processed 11.2 million boxes.
God is present throughout the entire process. From assisting the person that puts the box together to the people that check the box at the processing facility to the person who hands that gift to the child. A testament to this is a story Gale mentioned about a Central American child. A gentleman on one of Gale's previous tours had been on a mission trip in Central America. Samaritan's Purse happened to be arriving with shoeboxes and the local Pastor asked the gentleman to help give out the shoeboxes to the children. When they got down to the bottom of the box, the gentleman reached down to pick up the shoebox and was surprised at how heavy the shoebox was. He wondered what could be inside. He handed the box to the last child and then went to check on some of the other children. Since he was curious about what was inside the heavy shoebox, the gentleman came back to the child who had received it to ask him what was inside. He found the child in tears. The child explained to the man that he had been praying for the gift he had received, a variety of different tools, including a hammer and nails. Gale explained that tools aren't on the packing list but they also aren't on the 'do not pack' list. God unmistakably played a role in guiding the person who packed the box as well as the person handing the boxes to the children.
A woman, Adaris, on our tour had a similar experience. She stated that she was working as a translator in the Dominican Republic and was also asked to hand out shoeboxes for Samaritan's Purse. They were distributing the boxes to sick children in a hospital. They got down to the last box, but there were three children who hadn't received one. She prayed that God would help her decide which of the children to give the last box to. The child she chose opened the box he was given. Among the items was a pencil sharpener and a single pencil. The child proceeded to break the pencil into pieces and sharpen the ends of each one. He gave a sharpened pencil to both children who did not receive a box. This experience affected her exponentially and she said that she has been involved with Samaritan's Purse ever since.
While at the processing facility, the shoebox undergoes a multistep process.
Volunteers working together at a table are assigned jobs in an assembly line like manner . The first job is to take the $7 donation out of the box and place it in a lockbox. The second person looks for items that do not belong. This includes any toys that have to do with war or violence, because many of these children have been scarred by war. Any item that is liquid or perishable is taken out of the box. They cannot take anything perishable because it could be many months before the child receives his shoebox. Anything removed from the shoebox is placed in a bucket that will be donated to a local charity. Next, filler items are placed in the box if needed. Then it is taped up and placed in a large shipping box with several other boxes. Once a final destination is determined, these boxes are loaded into containers and taken to a port for shipment. The containers ship towards the end of December or early January.
A year prior to boxes arriving in a receiving country, training begins for the Samaritan's Purse overseas volunteers. Each region has a regional director. Volunteers receive training in logistics and also how to share the gospel with children. After boxes are brought to the port in the donating country and shipped out, it is the job of the international team to figure out how to get the shoeboxes to the children in the region. There are a variety of different transportation methods, from truck to canoe or donkey, which depends on what resources the country has. It has taken 20 years to develop capacity at field level for Operation Christmas Child.
Booklets about the gospel accompany each shoebox but are shipped separately since the final destination of the box could change. Booklets are printed in 75 different languages. Gale explained, "The goal is gospel" as well as delivering "one box to one child one time."
Children who receive a shoebox have the option of enrolling in "The Greatest Journey," which is a 12 lesson course on the Bible. The program is funded by donations around the world. It is also possible to build a box online. The boxes in this program are assembled at the Charlotte facility and go to children in very remote locations.
When your shoebox joins Operation Christmas Child, it becomes part of large network of ministry programs that Samaritan's Purse has established around the world. There are twenty ministry programs listed on their website from Human Trafficking Prevention to International Crisis Relief. It would be impossible to do justice to these programs within the confines of this article and I encourage you to read about them on their website. Here is a brief description of one program available to our veterans here in Hernando County and around the nation.
The remote shores of Hardenburg Bay in Alaska is the setting for Operation Heal Our Patriots or "OHOP," a 1 week workshop for Veterans wounded since 9/11 and their spouses. Run by retired Marine Corps General Jim Walker, the program focuses on renewing the spirit of these families. Samaritan's Purse states, "To thank these brave men and women for their service and sacrifice, we offer programs uniquely developed to strengthen the marriage relationship and build hope for the future through the transforming power of God’s Word." OHOP employs 2 full time pastors who are on call to couples after the program to provide support through telephone or skype calls. The program also helps to find local church support for the couple after they return home. Around 680 couples have participated in OHOP over the last 5 years.
While reading about another ministry program, it became readily apparent that the lives Samaritan's Purse volunteers are impacted equally to those they are helping. In earthquake and cholera ravaged Haiti, Greta Home Academy for ages 3-18 is ministering and educating the country's future leaders. It is named in honor of former Fox News Anchor Greta Van Susteren who raised funds for the cholera epidemic in Haiti, saving thousands of lives. The academy was built on the site where an orphanage and school was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. Shortly after the earthquake, Samaritan's Purse began feeding and housing the young survivors. While reading the blogs of the volunteers at the academy, it is apparent that the children are helping the volunteers just as much as the volunteers are helping the children. Alissa writes, "These children had chiseled away my strategically developed walls bit by bit. I don’t remember the specific day that I noticed my walls had evaporated, but it had happened right under my nose, bit by bit. God used my friendships with these children to remove the guards I had placed around my heart; it was sneaky and well played by the hand of God." This reminded me about the experience Adaris had distributing the shoeboxes to the sick children in the Dominican Republic and the affect it had on her.
Ken Isaacs, Vice President of Programs and Government Relations, emphasizes that while Samaritan's Purse operations are very complex behind the scenes, their goal and mission is simple. The mission statement reads,
"Samaritan's Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, Samaritan's Purse has helped meet the needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God's love through his Son, Jesus Christ. The organization serves the church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Isaacs who has been with the organization since 1988 and was the first person to go overseas for Samaritan's Purse explained, "Anytime we have a complicated decision, I reference that," referring to the Mission Statement.
"I want to make sure that what we're going to do is encompassed in the Mission Statement."
Isaacs heads up the International Crisis Response team at Samaritan's Purse International Headquarters in Boone, NC.
He relayed to us the meaning behind the organization's name. Many of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37.
Isaacs explained that like the Samaritan, they strive to assist those who have fallen into the ditch. They provide the essentials to those in need in order to heal them. Isaacs explained that when the Samaritan paid the innkeeper two denarii or coins to house and care for the injured man, they assume the coins came out of the Samaritan's purse.
Isaacs stated that in any refugee or disaster response there are six sectors to helping those in need: food, medical, logistical, shelter, WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) and nonfood items. The Samaritan provided this type of care for the injured man.
"It has always amazed me that the simplicity of the parable encapsulates the struggle of those in the ditch of life," said Isaacs.
When asked about if and how Samaritan's Purse coordinates with other aid organizations, Isaacs explained that the United Nations' Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance is the main coordinator through cluster meetings in which organizations are grouped by the type of response they provide i.e food, medical or non-food items.
Isaacs takes a proactive approach to coordination. "I consider it coordinating, when we tell people what we've done." It is their top priority to show up and get the victims out of the ditch he explained.
Samaritan's Purse International Crisis Response Team has field offices in 17 different countries and a total workforce of 5 to 6000 people (outside of US). There are four affiliated offices: one in US, Canada, UK and Australia. Isaacs added that on the domestic side, there are 12,000 volunteers who respond to disasters in the US. These volunteers pay for their travel to the affected areas.
While all of the programs Samaritan's Purse has developed are important, Isaacs emphasized that currently the number of refugees in the world is at its highest point since World War II and helping them is a main focus of the organization.
The shoeboxes of Operation Christmas Child go to many of those refugees. Isaacs explained that what sets OCC apart from domestic Christmas gift giving organizations is their aim to spread the gospel in other countries and use the shoeboxes as a "platform of Christ."
Although one of the goals of Samaritan's Purse is to spread the gospel, they operate in countries where Christianity is not necessarily welcome. Isaacs explained, "The quality of work is the most powerful witness."
Hopefully, you'll never look at a shoebox the same way again.