It’s that time of year again when people all across Canada are buying toys, school supplies and hygiene items, and packing them in shoeboxes to be part of Samaritan's Purse’s annual Operation Christmas Child ministry to struggling children in the developing world.
Every year, as Canadians are doing their shopping and packing, some of them inevitably have some very valid questions about how Operation Christmas Child functions. Here are some typical concerns.
1) Do you deliver all the gift-filled shoeboxes by Christmas Eve?
No. Most of the boxes won’t be distributed to needy children for several more weeks and possibly months. It takes us that long to transport the boxes to the designated countries, undergo the necessary customs inspections, and travel to the communities where, in partnership with local churches, we will distribute them. These delays may be a bit disappointing to you, but we’ve learned that children love to receive gift-filled shoeboxes at ANY time of year. And many of them aren’t even aware of Christmas, or the tradition of giving gifts to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
2) Do some of the shoeboxes Canadians pack contain inappropriate items-like GI Joe dolls for children who may have been traumatized by war, or mitts and toques for children living in hot tropical climates?
Yes, there are instances where Canadians have included toy guns, war toys, and other inappropriate items. That’s why each box undergoes a thorough inspection at our processing centers in Ontario and Alberta before it arrives in an excited child’s hands. The inspection is also designed to eliminate any used or broken items, plus anything that might break or freeze in transit, plus no candy or food. At the same time, we do everything we can to uphold “the integrity of the box” meaning we don’t mix and match items between boxes. We do all we can to leave each box as its donor packed it.
It’s true that Canadians often pack mitts, toques, sweaters, jackets, socks, and other clothing into the shoeboxes they donate. And although many of those boxes go to seemingly warm countries in Latin America and West Africa, almost all of those countries experience cooler periods during the year when warm clothing is very welcome. Those periods may not seem very cool to us, but they are to the local children and their families! For example, even when it is 30 degrees Celsius, parents and children in Liberia will put on gloves and coats to keep warm while riding their motorcycles.
3) Does sending shoeboxes filled with toys, school supplies hygiene items from Canada hurt the local economies where the shoeboxes are distributed, because the free gifts make it unnecessary for receiving families to buy these items from local merchants or manufacturers?
Most of the children receiving shoeboxes come from such poor families that their parents can’t afford to buy what they’re receiving, so the shoeboxes have little or no impact on local demand or economies. On the other hand, for many of the children receiving shoeboxes, the pens, pencils and notebooks contained in those shoeboxes can actually mean the difference between being able to attend school and not.
We have visited with families whose children have used the same notebook over and over again. Filling it full of writing and then erasing the pages so it can be used again. Parents regularly express thanks to Operation Christmas Child for helping to bring joy into their children’s lives.
4) Does a gift-filled shoebox really help a poor family?
Yes. Shoeboxes brighten the lives of children who’ve often never received a gift before. The shoeboxes tell the children they are valued by not only their parents, but by someone far away, and by God. We regularly meet teens and adults-some who are now living in Canada-who warmly recall when they received their shoebox, and describe how profoundly meaningful it was for them. Most can still list each and every item their box contained, and some still delight in showing us some of the items! Knowing the hope and joy a shoebox brings, they now pack shoeboxes for others.
Samaritan’s Purse is fully committed to a wide variety of relief and development work including providing safe water, teaching good farming methods, vocational training, literacy programs, health and medical programs as well as many other forms of life-transforming assistance. But we’re also fully committed to Operation Christmas Child because of the way it focuses solely on children and their need to have some cherished items that belong only to them.
5) Do you use the shoeboxes to coerce children and their families into Christianity?
We make no secret of the fact Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelistic Christian organization, and as we address hurting people’s short-term physical needs, we pray for the opportunity to also address people’s spiritual needs. However, there are many, many examples of us being denied the opportunity to share the Gospel but still providing assistance, including gift-filled shoeboxes. We provide aid regardless of whether it results in opportunities to share our faith.
Before shoeboxes are distributed in communities, we seek approval from local leaders, parents or guardians to also offer children “The Greatest Gift”-a colorful booklet in their local language that describes the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A few days after the shoebox distribution, in partnership with local churches, we often also offer “The Greatest Journey,” a 12-lesson Bible study for children.
The Greatest Journey classes are offered and carried out as a ministry of the local churches in their communities.
No shoebox recipients are pressured or obligated to accept “The Greatest Gift” booklet as that would be contrary to our values and Christian ethos. We are thankful to God that many want to receive it. We’re also thankful that so many voluntarily attend “The Greatest Journey” classes-then graduate, and commit their lives to Jesus Christ. These children and their families often tearfully declare how much it means to them to be loved by God, and to have new purpose and meaning in their lives. It’s a privilege for us to play a small part in their faith journey.
I hope these Questions and Answers help you to better understand Operation Christmas Child. God bless you this Christmas.