I’ve known about Operation Christmas Child (OCC) since it began back in 1993—mostly because I stay aware of the major projects Franklin Graham is part of. I’m not sure I actually remembered that name but I knew you could pack a shoebox with stuff for a child, give it to the right people and it would get sent to a needy child somewhere in the world. 

Then two of my adult daughters started actively volunteering for OCC. One of them started going with a group from her church to North Carolina to OCC’s headquarters at Samaritan’s Purse to get the boxes organized to be sent out for distribution. Another year she went to Baltimore to work at one of the regional centers where boxes are checked and readied for distribution to be flown to their final destinations.

That’s the year she asked me to go with her. I’m glad I agreed. Volunteers of all ages came from all over to help. We were divided into groups and each group worked an assembly line. Don’t think your boxes are getting repacked. They aren’t. They are checked to make sure that they are marked correctly—for a boy or girl, and for the proper age group. They are also checked to make sure that they include the right things—no “candy; toothpaste; gum; used or damaged items; scary or war-related items such as toy guns, knives, or military figures; chocolate or food; seeds; fruit rolls or other fruit snacks; drink mixes (powdered or liquid); liquids or lotions; medications or vitamins; breakable items such as snow globes or glass containers.”

Finally, if certain items are missing, there are groups of designated things to add to make the box complete. The last people on the assembly line pack up the readied shoeboxes in cardboard shipping boxes. It’s a fun process. Christmas music plays throughout the spacious warehouse and at frequent intervals someone announces how many boxes have just been completed, so that the volunteers are encouraged. We had breaks and lunch breaks where we could also meet each other, and at the end of the day we were given a t-shirt and thanked profusely. (My grandson came with us and he invited a girl that he liked. They were high school sophomores and just getting to know one another. In January 2023 they will marry. This doesn’t have anything to do with the story except that what a good idea my daughter had to bring her son.)

My other daughter who is involved with OCC has been volunteering in her church every November to organize the shoebox ministry. She’s currently preparing to launch this year’s campaign at our church in Lynchburg. During Covid it was really hard to get things out to enough people, so she and I went overboard and between us we packed about ten boxes, breaking up the boredom of quarantine.

But what got me even more excited a few months ago, was that a young woman from Ukraine started attending our church, and as we all got acquainted with her she told us that as a child she had received a shoebox and that it had changed her life. OCC has shared her story and recorded it online. (See link at the end.)

Viktoriia was born in Ukraine shortly after it had become independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. Her childhood was difficult. When she was only four years old, her picture appeared in the newspaper after she fell from the 9th story of her apartment building. The article said that it was a miracle that she was unscathed from the fall. Viktoriia believes that “God reached out His hand and caught [her] and laid [her] softly on the ground.”

“This is obviously something the Lord has blessed.”

Newly independent Ukraine was struggling, recovering from years spent under the Soviet regime. Financially it was difficult for a family to get by, and Viktoriia’s family was no exception. She lived with her mother, uncle, and grandmother who worked hard providing for them. Viktoriia’s mother and uncle had problems with alcohol and her mother would often become violent when she was drunk. But it is her grandmother’s caring and protective character that Viktoriia learned to rely on then and now recalls fondly.

When Viktoriia was 12 years old, she learned one Sunday as she attended church that the children were going to receive a surprise. “What can that be?” Viktoriia thought. She could hardly wait. It was shortly before Christmas, and what came through the church doors a little later were brightly colored boxes—one for each child. Viktoriia wanted that gift. “When I saw what was inside, I was so happy,” she says. “School supplies, hygiene items, and toys.”

Also included was a note from the woman who had packed the box. The woman wished her a merry Christmas, told Viktoriia that she was praying for her, and explained that she and God loved Viktoriia.”

“How can that be?” Viktoriia wondered. “Why would somebody love me without even knowing me?” She could not believe that the things in the box were all new and that they had been given to her. “Looking back at my life,” Viktoriia says now, “I feel like God never left me and that he always took care of me…. God is always faithful and He always sees me through…. That shoebox made a difference in my life and in my heart.”

The shoebox gave Viktoriia hope, as each shoebox has given hope to millions of children around the world to date. More than 198 million shoebox gifts have been given to children in more than 70 countries and territories. OCC is the largest Christmas project of its kind, and the story behind its beginning reveals how much God uses His people and how one person’s idea can mushroom into—well, millions of shoebox gifts for children.

It was the summer of 1993 when Franklin Graham, who had founded Samaritan’s Purse over two decades before, received a call from a very persistent caller. At the time, Graham’s organization was reaching out to the war-torn country of Bosnia and busily providing relief to the Bosnian refugees in surrounding countries. Christmas was the last thing on his mind. 

But that persistent caller was a man from Britain who wanted to help the children of Bosnia that had been left homeless, injured, and hopeless. He had a plan to fill empty shoeboxes with small toys and needed items to deliver to the children at Christmastime. He wanted to know if Graham’s organization could help put these together and ship them to Bosnia where he would receive and distribute them.

Graham really liked the idea and he wanted to help, so he said yes. But Christmas was a long way off and that was the last he thought of it until a few days before Thanksgiving, when the same man called again. He wanted to know when the boxes would be shipping to Bosnia. Graham jerked into action, calling the senior pastor of a large local Charlottesville church, who was also on the Board of Samaritan’s Purse. He explained the need and asked him to have his congregation take on the project. Graham also called a church in Canada to do the same. 

The Charlottesville pastor called Graham a few days after Thanksgiving and excitedly asked when he planned to pick the boxes up. “They’re stacked up in the gym, in the foyer, and in Sunday school rooms—they’re in the way.”

Graham, thankful that there were probably a few hundred boxes ready, was then told by the pastor that there were actually around 11,000. “Franklin,” he said, “this is obviously something the Lord has blessed.”

And continues to bless nearly three decades later. This story about the beginning of OCC and much more about the years since, can be found in Franklin Graham’s book, Operation Christmas Child: A Story of Simple Gifts. Graham writes, “The shoebox is the vehicle God has put into our hands to reach the little children of the world. We have seen how receptive children are to the Gospel message and we want to be faithful in proclaiming its great truth—inviting a lost world into the saving faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is now the time of year that you can take part in this exciting and fruitful ministry. It’s not hard to find a local church or organization that has shoeboxes available and is also the drop-off location once you have filled your boxes. Or you can order boxes directly from OCC. There are almost 5,000 drop off locations in the U.S. This year the boxes should be dropped off the week of November 14-21. You’ve still got several days.

I can’t recommend a better activity to do with your children to prepare them for Christmas. Let each child pack a box for a child their age and gender. And have them watch Viktoriia’s story right here before you get started. 

Photo courtesy of Samaritan's Purse

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