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 are curious about what Operation Christmas Child is and how it functions. Here are some typical questions:
1. What is Operation Christmas Child?
Operation Christmas Child is a project of the international relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse. Our mission is to provide local partners around the world with shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items, and school supplies as a means of reaching out to children in their own communities with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We ship these simple gifts from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and several other “sending” countries to children in the developing world and countries affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine and disease.
2. Who started Operation Christmas Child?
The program was started in the United Kingdom in 1990 by Dave and Jill Cooke. Three years later, Samaritan’s Purse assumed leadership and expanded the program enough to send shoeboxes to more than 28,000 children in 1993. Since then, Operation Christmas Child has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to over 135 million children in more than 150 countries and territories.
3. Do you accept donations of gift-filled shoeboxes all year round, or only in November?
We gladly welcome gift-filled shoeboxes throughout the year at our Calgary headquarters. We also know of many families, churches, and groups that pack boxes all year round, then store them until our annual Collection Week when all the boxes can be left at the nearest drop-off location.
4. Can I learn where my shoebox is sent?
Unfortunately, we do not have that tracking capability from Canada. We send boxes to a variety of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa.
5. How can I serve with Operation Christmas Child in my area?
We have many dedicated volunteers who work year-round to promote and pray for Operation Christmas Child. You can learn more about becoming a CONNECT volunteer on our website. We also have many seasonal volunteers that work at various times throughout the year. Additionally, starting in October, people can sign up to volunteer at our Ontario and Alberta processing centers.
6. Do you deliver all the gift-filled shoeboxes by Christmas Eve?
No. Most of the boxes won’t be distributed to children in need 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.
7. 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, occasionally inappropriate items such as toy guns and war toys have been included. 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. Inappropriate items are removed and donated to local charities. The inspection is also designed to eliminate any used or broken items, plus anything that might break, melt or freeze in transit, plus no candy or food. These items are also donated to local charities. 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.
8. 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 in those shoeboxes can actually mean the difference between being able to attend school or not.
We have visited families whose children have used the same notebook over and over again, filling it full of writing and then erasing the pages so they can start over with new notes. Parents regularly express thanks to Operation Christmas Child for helping to bring joy into their children’s lives.
9. 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, including 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.
Distributing shoeboxes in a community often enables Samaritan’s Purse to work with local leaders in identifying and addressing important community needs including safe water, improved agricultural production, etc. We are 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.
10. 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. And like the Good Samaritan, we bring hope and help to hurting people regardless of their religion or race.
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, where possible, children are invited to classes where we 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 or to participate in “The Greatest Journey” classes because 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 children 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.
11. Are only Christians allowed to volunteer with Operation Christmas Child?
No. Each year, thousands of individual volunteers from across Canada participate in Operation Christmas Child. It is only our CONNECT volunteers, who are trained and authorized to represent Operation Christmas Child all year-round to churches and organizations including the news media, who must have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and a willingness to sign our official Statement of Faith. It wouldn’t be fair of us to place a Connect volunteer in a position where he or she could not publicly endorse Samaritan’s Purse’s purpose and values, including our Statement of Faith.
12. Is Operation Christmas Child an effective relief/development program?
We have never presented Operation Christmas Child as a relief or development program. Gift-filled shoeboxes are distributed to children, most of whom have never received a gift, to tell them they are loved by the people packing the boxes, but more importantly, by God Himself. Shoebox distributions often result in us working with local leaders to identify relief/development needs—including safe water, food production and farming techniques, vocational training and initiatives to prevent human trafficking—in the community that Samaritan’s Purse can then begin meeting.
13. Does Operation Christmas Child really improve the lives of impoverished children?
All children deserve something they can call their own that will give them joy and fun. This is what children in impoverished nations receive when they open shoeboxes packed by generous Canadians.
In addition, they often receive school supplies and hygiene items—both of which DO improve their lives. Many developing nations have free education systems, but often, students must bring their own school supplies. So the pencils and notepads we encourage Canadians to put into shoeboxes often dictate whether they can go to school. The hygiene items are also something their parents can seldom afford.
And again, when we enter communities to distribute shoeboxes, it often kick-starts work with local leaders to identify and address major relief and development needs (water, food, vocational training, etc.) that will benefit not only the children but entire families and entire communities.
14. Can Operation Christmas Child be offered in a public or separate school as a charitable project for and by students to pack shoebox gifts for children in the developing world?
Operation Christmas Child can be offered to children in any public or Catholic school in Canada. Although the school project would be in support of an evangelical Christian organization, it is legally permissible as long as the parents of the students being invited to participate are given ‘first right of refusal’ to not have their children involved.
Provincial and federal legislation throughout Canada allows for students to take part in religious projects if their parents or guardians approve of the activity. In most schools, Operation Christmas Child projects are scheduled after regular school hours, in part to help ensure certain students don’t feel left out because their parents declined the invitation for them to participate.