On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, most holiday shoppers had barely scratched the surface of their Christmas lists. Not so for a group of global-minded volunteers, who were busy wrapping and packing presents at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium.
As part of Operation Christmas Child, volunteers were preparing to send close to 20,000 shoeboxes — or shoebox-sized packages — of toys, school supplies, personal care items and other goodies to children in under-served areas around the world.
For 10 years, Grace Fellowship has served as an area collection site for this popular giving project, which draws the participation of other churches, community groups, Girl Scout troops and families who want to send presents to children in need.
The project was started by Samaritan's Purse, a Christian-based international aid organization, founded in 1970 and now led by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, which uses its disaster relief connections to distribute these gifts. The first shoeboxes were delivered to children in war-torn Bosnia in 1993.
Since then, 100 million shoeboxes have been delivered to South America, Asia, Africa, the Republic of Georgia, Haiti and more. And just as the effort has grown globally, locally more and more volunteers have packed a box.
Leslie Fowler, of Lutherville, purchases small items throughout the year and when collection week arrives in November, she often is able to fill 12 to 15 boxes. She has encouraged her grandchildren to participate, and regularly enlists the help of her sister-in-law, Michelle Smith, of Medfield, who was filling boxes at Grace Fellowship on Saturday, Nov. 21, with her daughter, Michaela, 13.
"This is an easy project for kids to do," Smith said. "And I love the idea of kids helping kids, because kids in this country have a lot."
As she spoke, Michaela, who attends Roland Park Middle School, packed a box with a blue comb, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, pencils, erasers, hair ties, a Go Fish card game, a towel and a tiny doll.
"I like that this helps kids in need," Michaela said.
That's been the appeal all along, said volunteer Allan Urban, of White Hall: "This project is tangible and people know they are going to have an impact."
Urban and another volunteer, Lea Hartman, a Mays Chapel resident and Grace Fellowship congregant, have overseen this collection center for the last decade.
Hartman got excited about the project when she visited an Operation Christmas Child processing center in Charlotte, N.C., a site where 2.5 million shoeboxes are readied to leave this country. After working there, Hartman knew this was the perfect project for her church.
Today, there are seven relay sites in Baltimore and Harford counties that bring shoeboxes to Grace Fellowship, whose volunteers load enough boxes to fill four tractor trailers, which then deliver the goodies to Charlotte. From there, they find their way to children around the world. This year, many of the packages will be sent to children in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan.
Close to 100 volunteers from Grace Fellowship help out in some way with the project. Last week, Hartman was scheduled to lead a group of 25 to Charlotte to work in the processing center. Next year, she said Operation Christmas Child will have a processing center in the Mid-Atlantic since this area has such a high number of donations.
The impact is massive, Urban said. Because of the large number of donations and the number of countries where they are sent, global distribution will take months. But that means that when Christmas is just a memory for American children, he said, their goodwill will still have an effect.
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