While out shopping for gifts for family and friends this holiday season, some charitable shoppers also reached for dolls, notepads and toiletries to pack into a shoebox for a child overseas. The shoeboxes not only give impoverished kids some necessities, but something less tangible -- hope.
Recently, hundreds of festive shoeboxes line the walls of Oswego Alliance Church. Volunteers take a couple minutes to stack each box, straightening out the red and green columns into one uniform wall. None of the boxes have shoes in them.
Operation Christmas Child has been creating gifts for 20 years, and has sent out more than 100 million shoeboxes to kids in countries around the world. In that time, little Christmas-colored boxes filled with toiletries, hard candies, pencils, crayons and other small items have gone to war-torn areas, countries struck by naturals disasters and those impacted by the ravages of extreme poverty.
Patty Jennings is the area coordinator for parts of northern and central New York for Samaritan's Purse, the religious charity behind Operation Christmas Child. Not only does she pack shoeboxes, she has helped hand deliver those very packages to kids who need them the most. She says her strong religious faith is the driving force behind her quest to help as many kids as she can, and the feeling she gets from watching a child open their hand-packed box is unmatched.
"Just how grateful they are, because the kids have, like, nothing," Jennings said. "And knowing that pencils and crayons and little toys make them so happy. My mom made them a blankie and, you know, it's warm, safe and secure. And to show them that kind of love is amazing."
Jennings has also personally delivered shoeboxes and has seen how happy the children are to receive a gift from someone who cares.
"Everything in that box excited this kid," Jennings said. "And he was so blessed by it. I mean, I was crying because my mom had packed the box, so it was so personal to me to see that happen."
While a few hard candies and notebooks sounds like a Christmas straight out of Staples to kids in the U.S., for children like Alex Nsengimana, who lived in a Rwandan orphanage after his grandmother and uncle were tortured and killed, it means the world.
"The smile that I had at that time and the joy that I had receiving that gift is the same kind of joy that whoever packs the shoebox is sending to that child around the world," Nsengimana said.
Nsengimana was seven years old in 1994 when he received his shoebox, but can still name everything in it. He quickly rattles off several items packed in. Socks, underwear, even a two-piece flip comb which he says he carried with him for three years. But then, pausing, he remembers his favorite item in the box.
"I had never tasted a candy cane before. And I remember looking through my box and trying to figure out what a candy cane was. And I actually ate the first bite with the plastic on it," he explained, laughing a little. "Yeah, because I didn't know what it was."
Now Nsengimana is on the other end of the exchange, packing boxes at Operation Christmas Child's headquarters in Boone, North Carolina. He says he wanted to get involved with Samaritan's Purse after learning more about the program.
Meanwhile, back in Oswego, Patty Jennings works closely with volunteers handing out instructions and showing people step-by-step how to pack their boxes.
Since joining the group, Jennings says she has seen the program grow immensely, and knows how important each gift is to a child from Haiti, South Africa or the Philippines.
"Each one of those boxes represents a child and their family," Jennings said. "If I can help them and let them know that they're not forgotten, that God loves them and that they're special and we can give them this tangible gift, and just let them know that they're loved. I mean, what's more rewarding than that?"
This year, Jennings oversaw thousands of shoeboxes packed at churches across northern and central New York, including Oswego and Wolcott.
Among the volunteers helping out this season is Mason Farnham, who is a relative newcomer to the program. He adjusts a stack of boxes while in the background a group of children of some of the volunteers giggle and try out some of the toys.
"I moved to Oswego in the spring and I was looking for a charity to get involved with," Farnham said. "I had been working with Samaritan's Purse a little bit and I found Operation Christmas Child online. It seems like a great thing to help a lot of kinds and so I volunteered to come out whenever I wasn't working."
He says packing the shoebox is a simple task, and bringing a smile to a child who really needs it is well worth the effort. Patty Jennings echoed Farnham's comments, saying Operation Christmas Child's simplicity is what makes it successful.
"The simplicity of this gift is that anybody can pack a shoebox. And so when you make it that simple and that doable, and you get word out to people, then they think I can do that. I could help a child."
This year, Samaritan's Purse says they anticipate many of the boxes will go to the Philippines, where regions of the country were decimated by Typhoon Haiyan.