Year-round volunteers give shoebox shopping tips, including how seasonal purchasing can result in cost savings on quality items.
As back-to-school items are placed front-and-center in stores this time of year, many Operation Christmas Child year-round shoppers are rolling up their sleeves to find great deals. School supplies are a fundamental component of quality shoebox gifts.
In addition to capitalizing on seasonal sales and off-season clearance merchandise, shopping year-round divides shoebox purchases over several months, said Jan Harbuck, an Operation Christmas Child area coordinator in Alabama.
“If you shop year-round, you’re not spending it all at one time,” she said. “You’re spreading it out so you don’t feel the impact all at once.”
Whether you shop for shoebox gifts year-round or organize shopping trips closer to National Collection Week, here are a few tips from some of our year-round Operation Christmas Child volunteers:
1. Let prayer be your guide.
It’s about more than just praying for the shoebox recipient after you pack a box, said Nancy Benedik, a church relations coordinator in Colorado. Praying for the Lord’s guidance as you plan and collect items can strengthen your relationship with Him as you rely on His provision.
“Praying before you pack a shoebox is just as important as after,” she said. “God will lay things on your heart. Pray and ask God to show you, to pave the way for you.”
Karla Sunderlin, a regional area coordinator in Pennsylvania, prays in line with item categories. For instance, she asks that God would use personal care items to boost the child’s confidence and self-worth. She prays that children who receive school supplies would be encouraged to learn and grow in the Lord.
2. Make it personal.
Praying while shopping for shoebox items helps Sheila Lewis, a prayer team coordinator in Florida, personalize the gifts. “It helps you to be open to not only grab the items you always do but maybe something unique or different that the Holy Spirit may lead you to.”
She’s packed shoeboxes that have a career theme, such as baking, sewing, and art, praying that the box will go to a child dreaming about pursuing that path.
Another way to personalize the gift is to create a theme or honor box based on an interest of yours or your loved ones, with a note explaining the significance of the gifts, said Kathy Kendrick, an area coordinator in Kentucky.
Kathy’s packed shoeboxes based on an interest her children had, like sports, superheroes, or dinosaurs, as well as on milestones her family experienced that year, such as a graduation or wedding. She’s also selected shoebox gifts in honor of a parent or friend, including items that reflect their interests or those they had as a child.
3. Include quality items.
Sheila Waters, an area coordinator in Alabama, includes some immediate-use and size-specific items, such as pencils and T-shirts, along with longer lasting keepsakes, like a stuffed animal, toys, and accessories.
Packing quality items doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money on them—the priority is on durable, well-made items, she said.
“If you pack year-round, you can catch quality items for a fraction of their original cost,” Shelia said. “You want to give at least one quality item that will last a long time, a thing the child can treasure and hold onto for years.”
4. Make a list and check it twice.
Bev Gardner, a regional area coordinator in Florida, advises to keep a shoebox shopping list with you as you run errands year-round and encounter sales.
Start with the basics—school supplies, personal care items, and toys, and include a “wow” item on your list, she said.
Keeping a list doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to other finds or to what you feel led through prayer to include, Bev said. But it helps to hone your purchasing as you check items off your list.
5. Visit the clearance section during your regular shopping trips.
Spending a few extra minutes perusing clearance discounts as part of your regular shopping routine can result in finding shoebox deals year-round, said Sharra Kegan, a regional area coordinator in Virginia.
Shopping after major holidays for discounted seasonal items is another way to save on quality items, Sharra said. In addition, some states offer tax-free weekends on items such as school supplies.
“I shop for winter items in March, school supplies in July, and summer items in September and October,” she said about finding quality items on sale seasonally.
6. Consider whether bulk or joint buying is for you.
The cost per item in some cases can be less if buying in bulk, said Ross, Sharra’s husband. He serves as a logistics coordinator. But it takes space to inventory a stockpile of items, as well as time to identify stores that offer bulk discounts.“It isn’t just about asking for the best deal but building up a track record of being a dependable bulk buyer,” Ross said. “If they know that you’re going to spend money on bulk items to get a lower cost per unit, they may be more willing to make you a deal so they can clear away the merchandise from their shelves.”
Inviting vendors to a packing party or asking if you can send them photos of the event can help them understand the scope and purpose of the project, Sharra said. Those conversations can lead to opportunities to share the Gospel.
Another aspect of bulk buying is joint ordering, Ross said, for those who team to combine smaller quantity orders.
As a regional area coordinator in Pennsylvania, Karla encourages some people to consider partnering with others, such as family members, friends, and church members, which she calls “finding a shoebox buddy.”
“Small groups can pack shoeboxes together,” said Sheila Lewis, who, as a prayer team coordinator, encourages people to pray and ask the Lord for opportunities to help others pack shoeboxes. “It’s something that you can help each other out with.”