Area churches pack shoeboxes of gifts for children around the world

Churches in the area got a head start on the season of giving this week by packaging up thousands of shoeboxes filled with gifts for children around the world who are affected by war, disaster or poverty.

Those donating their time and efforts to Operation Christmas Child fill the shoeboxes with hygiene items, school supplies and fun toys or games. After collection centers across the country pack up the gifts, Christian evangelism organization Samaritan’s Purse sends them over to children in need. The organization’s goal this year is to reach 11 million children with gifts and the Gospel.

Bobby Stepp, a family life pastor at New Hope Bible Church in Front Royal, said this is the 10th year the church has served as a relay center. It’s held a tradition of packing parties before collection week, bringing children and families together to pack and wrap the boxes. He said many of the participating children enjoy picking out items for other kids in their age group while shopping.

“Not only are you giving to boys and girls that do not receive much at all, but it’s also an opportunity for the kids participating to be giving the gospel,” he said. “It’s not only to be giving the physical aspects to those who are in need, but also the spiritual.”

Because of shifting boundary lines, Stepp said he expects the number of participants and boxes to continue to grow. He said the church is looking into becoming a collection center that takes the boxes from relay centers before their final stops in the U.S. at distribution centers to be shipped off.

Student ministries pastor Lee Montgomery said that around one third of boxes at the Culpeper collection center have come from New Hope Bible Church. In September, the church gave those interested the chance to listen to a past recipient of a Christmas Child shoebox tell his story, and Stepp said the occasion was well received.

Toms Brook United Methodist Church has collected boxes from Shenandoah County individuals and churches in its basement for six years, according to relay coordinator Lorraine Shelton. So far, volunteers have seen more participation than before and Shelton anticipates they’ll top their count of more than 2,000 boxes collected last year.

In Winchester, around 3,500 boxes are expected to accumulate from churches and families dropping by Grace Community Church’s relay location. Relay coordinator Sheryl Lekas said some participating children become penpals with children who receive the boxes.

“It’s one of those things where you can really get involved with it…you’re going to touch life of a child somewhere that you will never meet,” she said.

Grace Community Church has received more than 2,500 boxes in the last four years from the organizational efforts of Winchester resident Diane Hurst. Recruiting the help of family, friends and community members, she’s contributed hundreds of boxes each year since 2011.

“My health is not good, so one of the things that prompted me with my friend to do it was…it was something to do that had significance to it…where I felt like it had meaning to it,” she said. “It was very gratifying – I’m an organizer by nature – that it allowed me to use my gift.”

Church youth will pick up more than 200 boxes she’s organized this year on Saturday, after which she said there’ll be a moment of respite. But bargain hunting to fill the shoeboxes has turned into a year-round process for Hurst.

“I don’t plan to do this – I come home with bags of stuff and I tell my husband I didn’t mean to buy this,” she said laughingly. “It just kind of falls in my lap and it’s like, ‘OK God, help me to turn these piles into meaningful boxes for children.”

Besides the packing help from friends, businesses and community groups, Hurst has come across individuals who, after learning about her efforts and Operation Christmas Child, have donated more than 1,000 T-shirts or hundreds of Beanie Babies to pack in the boxes. She said most people have been happy and eager to help.

Despite the scale of her contributions, she said she hasn’t felt the need to hear from the children her boxes have gone to.

“I know they went somewhere, I know they were useful and accomplished the purpose,” she said. “It’s the satisfaction of knowing that children are going to be blessed around the world that I will never see or know about – and are being blessed not only with material items, but most importantly that that box becomes a tool that opens a door for those children to be able to hear the gospel of the word of Jesus Christ.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com