Dedicated volunteers and a generous public in the East Valley will be giving thousands of needy children around the globe a merrier Christmas.
The local teams responsible for the annual Operation Christmas Child operation collected nearly 90,000 shoeboxes filled with gifts for delivery overseas.
The South Mountain team, which includes Chandler, collected a record 76,800 gift-filled boxes while the East Valley team, which covers Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek, collected more than 12,800 shoeboxes.
Both tallies exceeded what the teams collected last year, with the team netting 5,000 more boxes than it did in 2015.
The international nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse has distributed shoebox gifts to children in over 130 countries since 1993, and more than 11.2 million received one last year alone. Boxes packed by Arizonans are delivered to kids in the Philippines, Indonesia, Peru, Mongolia, Bangladesh and native Americans in the United States.
The idea behind the project is simple: Pack a shoebox with school supplies, toiletries and small toys. Prohibited items include liquids, perishable food and war-related toys.
The containers are either pre-decorated photo-storage boxes or plastic boxes with tops and bottoms gift-wrapped separately so they can be checked before they are shipped. Donors also kick in $7 per box to defray shipping costs.
Robin Earle of Chandler, who led the South Mountain team, said volunteers were “motivated by not only the needs of the children internationally but also the impact on individuals packing boxes.”
That attitude reflected the project’s theme of “reaching children and families on both sides of the box”—namely, the people who pack them and the kids who open them.
Among the supporters of the South Mountain team was the Hobby Lobby outlet in Chandler, as well as the Corona del Sol Men’s Soccer teams, Earler said.
Among the team members were Tina McDougall, community relations coordinator, and Cassie Pewitt, who coordinated the local collection center.
Valleywide, volunteers also marked the 1 millionth gift wrapped since Operation Christmas first arrived in Arizona.
Earle said the most important thing is knowing where the gifts will go.
“For many of these children, the shoebox gift delivered through this local project will be the first gift they will have ever received,” she said.
Earle participated two years ago in a shoebox distribution in the Philippines, where local pastors invited children from surrounding communities to receive gifts.
The country had been hit with a typhoon and a powerful earthquake.
“People were literally walking on rubble and were so grateful for our gifts of love,” Earle said.
Neysa Grzywal of Gilbert, who helped run the East Valley Team when its leader stepped down in October to head a women’s ministry, said she relied on the help of the other women to run the collection: Cary Kent, relay center coordinator; Kayelynn McClary, who ran the collection center at Compassion Church; and prayer coordinator Shannon Greany.
But others were involved as well.
“We had some incredible volunteers at each of our church drop-off locations, many of whom have been volunteering for year,” Grzywal said. “I also have a few wonderful ladies on my community relations team.”
They included team newcomers Angela Carlon and Bioleta Medar, both of Gilbert.
The East Valley team attracted a total 129 volunteers who put in nearly 800 hours of work and represented 72 community organizations.
That team got a special inspirational message during a visit from Jaki Stewart, a “full circle speaker” for Samaritan’s Purse because she received a shoebox gift when she was 6 years old and living in an orphanage in Guatemala.
Although local collections have finished for the season, Earle and Grzywal said there is still time to pack a gift-filled shoebox online for children suffering from poverty, natural disaster, war, terror, disease and famine.
Visitors can browse samaritanspurse.org/occ to select gifts matched to a child’s specific age and gender, then finish by uploading a photo and writing a note of encouragement to be included in the shoebox they build online. They can also follow their box to discover where in the world it will be delivered.
Participants can give a $25 gift card to a family member or friend so they can pack a shoebox gift online. These shoeboxes—filled with school supplies, toys, hygiene items and notes of encouragement—are delivered to children in some of the hardest-to-reach countries around the world.