Stepping into the warehouse felt like stepping into Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Scores of people, some even wearing elf hats, swarmed around the massive room; all were laughing, singing, shouting with joy, thinking of the smiles on the kids’ faces when they would receive the gifts being packaged that day.
This year 12 million kids around the world will receive a small box as a Christmas gift, about the size of a shoebox, through the organization Operation Christmas Child. The shoebox holds toys, games, stuffed animals, small sports equipment, shoes, hygiene items, and school supplies. Thousands of volunteers work on this project yearly to share the love of Christ, to celebrate Christmas as a season of giving–and to ensure that many children receive a Christmas gift who may not otherwise.
Operation Christmas Child, a seasonal branch of the year-round charity Samaritan’s Purse, has been in operation for 24 years, reaching 146 million children in that time. Shoeboxes are donated by individuals and churches all over the US, Canada, Australia, and several European countries, then brought to a processing center for inspection and final packing before delivery across the globe.
Last week my mom, my future sister-in-law Megan, and myself volunteered at an Operation Christmas Child processing center in Minneapolis, one of eight in the US. We signed up for three six-hour shifts in a process that was reminiscent of registering for college classes. After completing online profiles in September, Megan offered to awaken at the crack of dawn on October 6 to quickly request the shifts we wanted before they were snatched up by thousands of other eager volunteers.
After securing our Monday-Wednesday time slots, we booked flights to Minneapolis and planned our ‘Girls Getaway’ weekend! My family has been involved with this organization for many years. I have many memories of shopping for and packing our own shoeboxes as a kid, and heading up the OCC fundraiser during my senior year in college. I was thrilled to experience the next step in the process.
Operation Christmas Child by the numbers:
~This year, OCC expects to send 12 million boxes, and approximately 600,000-650,000 of those will come from the Minneapolis center.
~Since OCC began in 1993, it has sent 146 million boxes all over the world. For scale: had those boxes only been delivered to the continent of Africa, only one out of three children would have received a shoebox.
~Ukraine and Mexico receive the most boxes every year.
Entering the warehouse Monday morning, I was impressed by how well-organized the event space was. All equipment, tables, stations, and metal wheel conveyors seemed to be built for the space itself, though it all had been set up a few weeks before. A large decorated tree with red and green shoeboxes beneath it kept us in a Christmas mood, and a prayer wall with pictures of kids receiving the boxes in previous years gave us a mindset of giving throughout the day. Every couple hours the chaplain on duty halted all volunteers to pray over the boxes–we were the last ones to interact with the boxes before they were placed in the hands of the children.
Cartons of shoeboxes rolled down center conveyors, past stations with large signs reading ‘Filler Items,’ ‘Shoebox Hospital,’ and ‘Inappropriate Items.’ The cartons were pushed to 18 different stations, each with a team of three to 12 volunteers working staggered shifts.
At each of these 18 stations, two pre-inspectors removed and placed in a safe box any monetary donations which had been included to aid shipping costs. Sending millions of boxes each year is not cheap! Pre-inspectors also ensured each box was labeled with a gender and age group sticker (2-4, 5-9, 10-14) to better help with cartonizing and distribution.
Four or five inspectors at each table checked the boxes over for ‘contraband’ items. Although in previous years items such as candy and toothpaste have been allowed, recent changes in customs policies in many countries have forced Operation Christmas Child to tighten its standards. Liquids, breakables, and war-related items were also removed. Since some boxes may be delivered to places where war is a daily struggle, OCC wants each child’s Christmas gift to be a reprieve from that reality; a joyful experience, not one that reminds them of the turmoil surrounding them. Items which are removed from the boxes were taken to the ‘inappropriate items’ table, to be donated to local charities. ‘Filler items,’ then, were added to boxes which were lacking if too many items had been removed. The extremely full boxes were then passed to the tape stations keep them from bursting during transport.
Some people included family pictures and letters in their boxes, with an address in case the kids wanted to write back. In past years I often included my email address, and one year two girls wrote back from the Philippines. We remained in contact for a few years via email, and we are still Facebook friends to this day! Some labels have the option of tracking a QR code so that the sender knows where his or her box is going.
Tapers passed shoeboxes to cartonizers, who organized shoeboxes by age and gender, about 20 to a carton, to be taped shut and loaded into giant shipping containers by forklift. These shipping containers are then placed on trains and planes for final transport. Boxes packed at the Minneapolis location went to Gabon, Namibia, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, Niger, Native American reservations, and some ‘sensitive countries’ whose names could not be divulged; that is, places where they aren’t allowed to go…but are going anyway!
The warehouse atmosphere was full of hope and joy. Knowing that we were all working toward a common goal for the good of others brought out the Christmas spirit in all of us.
Footnote: of course we couldn’t go to Minneapolis without stopping at the Mall of America! Featured here: Hard Rock Café, Dough Dough, and the Lego store. There may have also been roller coasters involved.