Over Md. 140 and through the mall to the dollar store we go. Every November, before Thanksgiving, my husband Paul and I join hundreds of shoppers who descend upon the modern-day equivalent of what used to be called “dime stores.”
We shoppers check our lists twice as we scan the aisles for gifts that may include stuffed animals such as lions, tigers, and bears. Or cars, crayons, coloring books, Play-Doh, dolls, trucks, and enough items to fit inside one or more shoeboxes. Yes, shoeboxes.
Monday, Nov. 20 marks the end of National Collection Week for Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. The mission is to give a child in need a box full of age-related gifts that may include toys, school supplies, craft kits, clothing, soap, toothbrushes, personal care items and a myriad of other fun and practical things.
Though shoppers may find their gifts anywhere, a dollar store seems to be a magnetic draw for people of all income levels who love to fill their shoeboxes to the brim with things that can be found in one store.
The organization believes the project is a way of demonstrating God’s love in a tangible way to children around the world, some of whom have never received a gift before. Several churches support the project, including Westminster United Methodist Church which is how Paul and I became involved. But anyone can pack a shoebox, including individuals, families, and groups.
As a result, shopping to fill the Christmas Child shoeboxes has become a feel-good tradition that Paul and I look forward to each year. It’s a way for me to shop without pressure before the onslaught of holiday baking, decorating, wrapping and whatever else I can fit into the ever-dwindling holiday time slot.
For an hour or less, I can focus on a child I will never meet and imagine his or her likes and needs, thus giving me the first opportunity of the season to experience the simple pleasure of giving.
This year, after reading an excerpt in our church newsletter from a Romanian woman named Tania — who had received a shoebox during the communist regime when she was 10 years old — I was inspired.
“Sometimes my dad worked two jobs,” she wrote. “He worked hard, and our basic needs were met but we didn’t have anything extra. My sister and I didn’t usually receive gifts, even at birthdays or Christmas. … When I opened my shoebox, I saw an explosion of color: plastic jewelry, a new hat, and scarves ...”
Her favorite items were school supplies which included multi-hued pens, a notebook, and colored pencils.
As Paul and I embarked down the dollar store aisles — each with our own shopping cart — it was no surprise that my first stop was the school supply shelves where I had fun choosing decorated pencils, pencil sharpeners, brightly colored erasers, and notepads. My shopping was for a girl —5 to 9 years of age — hopefully in need of school supplies. But I also had to satisfy my urge to buy girly stuff that included a doll, jump rope, a pink stuffed bear, and a fairy princess head band. Since my daughter is an adult and I have two grandsons, picking out little girl gear revives my feminine instincts.
I was surprised that Paul, hater of all shopping, proved to be a good sport as we went our separate ways. Apparently, his inner-boy surfaced when he chose several gifts for a boy between the ages of 2 and 4 that included a ball, game, play dough, and even a plush monkey. In addition, he was diligent in his selections of toys that were not war-related. Guns, knives, or military figures are to be avoided.
With our shopping trip completed, we filled our boxes and included a $9 donation, per shoebox online, to cover the cost of transporting the gifts. For the first time, we received a tracking label to discover its ultimate destination. (In past years, we had included a check inside the box and never had any idea to where the box would be shipped.)
In the meantime, I’ll wonder if a child, like Tania, will be impacted by the realization that there are people who care enough to give special gifts to children they have never met.
When the Romanian girl grew up, she moved to the United States and is now a special education teacher at a high school. Every year, packing shoeboxes has become for her a treasured family tradition.
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“I want my children to understand that many children around the world do not have as much as we do,” she wrote. “We must give abundantly in order to bless others in the way we have been blessed.”