As a 6-year-old living in poverty in a Panama City ghetto, Luis Gonzalez wanted nothing more than to go to school. He recalls that his mother, who couldn’t afford the cost of school fees and supplies, told him to pray about it.
The next day he was invited to a church and given a small shoe box that he says helped change his life. Inside were school supplies and a stuffed toy lamb.
Gonzalez, now 28, living in Louisville, Ky., and working in a bank, spent Saturday sharing his story in a cavernous warehouse in Columbia, where hundreds of volunteers have spent the past couple of weeks preparing shoe boxes of items to send as gifts to children in need around the world.
The initiative, Operation Christmas Child, a project of international relief group Samaritan’s Purse, sends packages filled with small toys, hygiene items and school supplies to children outside the U.S. affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine and disease. One of those boxes reached Gonzalez as a child more than two decades ago. He said his family then began going to church regularly.
“Today, I can give back what I was given: hope,” said Gonzalez, who worked alongside others in the the Columbia processing center, where collected donations were being prepared for shipping. The shoe box project “lets children know they are not forgotten. There is a lot of need out there.”
The program was started by a couple from Wales in 1990 and merged three years later with Samaritan’s Purse. Operation Christmas Child says it has sent shoe boxes to more than 146 million children in more than 100 countries since its founding.
The project operates eight centers around the country, including one on Robert Fulton Drive in Columbia. Volunteers, about 300 at any given time, have been working six days a week in two shifts since just before Thanksgiving to process the donations. The boxes are then shipped to countries such as Mexico, Kenya and Colombia.
Local volunteers in each country help identify children and deliver gifts. On Saturday, volunteers processed some 65,000 shoe boxes, said Eric Lapointe, the processing center manager.
“We want to share the hope of Christmas with them,” Lapointe said
Rachel Tadlock drove with a friend from Lancaster, Pa., on Saturday to work on the assembly line of volunteers. They opened donated shoe boxes to check for items that are not allowed in international shipping, such as liquids or candy.
Tadlock said she has participated in the project in the past, packing shoe boxes at her church.
This year, “I wanted to be a little more hands-on and pray for the children we’re packing boxes for,” said Tadlock, an elementary school teacher. She said she hopes children who receive boxes know they’re “being thought of by someone halfway around the world.”
Kathy Schriefer and her husband, JIm, drove more than five hours from their home in Erie, Pa., and have spent the week at a hotel in Columbia, volunteering each day at the processing center. Schriefer volunteers year-round for Operation Christmas Child, encouraging groups and churches to donate the filled shoe boxes..
She started volunteering in 1995, when she donated several boxes. Now she helps lead efforts in her community to donate tens of thousands of boxes. She has received hundreds of letters from children and their parents who have been sent gifts, including one that said, “’My daughter needed shoes, and there was no way I could buy them. There were shoes in the box.’”
“For a small investment of time and money, you get a huge return and impact the lives of children, their families and their communities,” Schriefer said.
Gonzalez said he can attest to that. As important as the school supplies he received so long ago was a letter inside from the box’s donor, saying, he recalled, “‘Jesus loves you, and I love you too.’”