Christmas is a month away, but Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium is doubling as an early version of Santa's workshop this week.
The church, at 9505 Deereco Road, is serving as one of two Baltimore County drop-off centers for Operation Christmas Child, which sends millions of gift-filled shoe boxes each year to underprivileged children in more than 100 countries worldwide.
"It's something simple people can do," volunteer Allan Urban said. "You know you're going to touch the life of a child somewhere in the world."
All across the county, youth groups, schools and ministries of all sizes are filling shoe boxes with gifts for the collection. Operation Christmas Child provides lists of recommended items for boys and girls, ages 2 to 4, 5 to 9, and 10 to 14.
Urban said that this year the goal was to top last year's 25,000 shoe boxes, a realistic target given that the drive has seen donations increase in each of its eight years.
"Even in a down economy, that's impressive," Urban said.
On Monday, Nov. 14, the first day of collections, Grace Fellowship was already well on its way. About 14,000 shoe boxes full of gifts arrived that day, the product of collections at Sunday services across the county.
And as the week has continued, local groups and residents, such as Lois Gallade of Timonium, have been dropping off contributions.
"I come to Grace," Gallade said, "and I think it's a nice thing to do, to help out some kids who might not get anything for Christmas."
Gallade brought two shoe boxes on Thursday morning, Nov. 17, one for a boy and one for a girl.
Others, such as Vernelle Bellon of Essex, brought what is known as "filler," which are individual items put into boxes by the Grace Fellowship volunteers.
Bellon said she scours thrift stores in her area for stuffed animals, with this year's haul bringing more than 1,300 small stuffed animals to children across the world.
"I hope that it'll make a lot of children happy," Bellon said.
Kathy Digert, a Parkville resident who drove Bellon, said Bellon recently saw a video that showed boxes being delivered in various parts of the world. It was a video that full of images that made the destination for her stuffed animals real, she said.
This year, Urban said donors can print out bar code labels for their shoe boxes that will be scanned upon arrival in the country of destination — giving donors a sense of connection to the children who receive the shoe boxes.
"I'm excited about knowing the country my little girls live in," said Vicki Beringman, who traveled from her home in Baltimore City to deliver two boxes, designed for girls ages 5-9. "All through December, I'm wondering who's opening the package and where they live."
The shoe boxes being checked for content and boxed up for shipping to the national collection center in Charlotte, N.C., have a long trip ahead of them before a child opens them. Bonnie Suter, of White Marsh, has been one of a dozen volunteers from Grace Fellowship to make the trip to Charlotte, and she recalled the week as exhausting, but fulfilling.
Each box is re-checked for integrity and content — and for items that aren't allowed, such as war toys, liquids, and medicines. Any in that category are donated to local charities in the Charlotte area, giving the program a domestic angle as well.
When recounting the experience, Suter said the only thing more striking than seeing millions of boxes shuffling through is the atmosphere among the workers.
"The energy that's there is so amazing, because you know you're impacting a child's life," Suter said. "Not only are you giving a gift to someone who has never received one, but a pamphlet goes in each box so they can learn about the Gospel."
Collections for this year's Operation Christmas Child at Grace Fellowship Church runs through Monday, Nov. 21. Operating hours are Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Collection hours at Baltimore County's other drop-off center, Central Baptist Church, located at 404 North Maryln Ave,. in Essex, are Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To learn more about participating this year, visit http://www.samaritanspurse.org/index.php/OCC