Organization delivered 664,000 shoeboxes to impoverished children in third world countries last year
Despite the difficulty Samaritan's Purse has with keeping Operation Christmas Child in schools, hundreds gather annually over the holiday season at the Calgary processing facility to pack thousands of shoeboxes filled with gifts to send to children in need around the world.
Operation Christmas Child used to be hosted by schools across Canada, but many have opted out due to the group being a Christian organization. While the decline does not impact the operation as a whole, it does affect the number of boxes each processing facility receives.
Frank King, communications manager at Samaritan's Purse Canada, says he has seen a steady decline of Operation Christmas Child appearing in local schools.
"It's become increasingly difficult because fewer and fewer schools will allow Operation Christmas Child into them due to the fact that we are a Christian organization," said King earlier this month.
Sean Myers, a communications specialist at the Calgary Catholic School District, said no Catholic Schools are participating in Operation Christmas Child.
"Part of our allowance into Catholic schools depends whether or not we have an advocate in the area," King said.
On the Operation Christmas Child website, advocates are described as year-round volunteers, known as CONNECT volunteers. Their responsibility is to work throughout the year to build relationships with community groups and increase awareness through local events and conferences.
Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has sent an estimated 113 million shoeboxes filled with gifts to children in poverty-stricken countries.
It is estimated that volunteers will inspect and send 200,000 shoeboxes during the 20-day window that the facility is open.
"We are really dependent on a network of hundreds of volunteers across Canada," King said. "This operation does not work without them."
There are three processing facilities across Canada, including one in Calgary.
The processing centre itself can be compared to Santa's workshop. Volunteers inspect box after box to ensure that there is nothing harmful or inappropriate inside. The shoeboxes are then placed on a large conveyor belt and moved to an area where they are organized, packed and stored until its time to distribute the boxes to countries like Liberia or Haiti.
Canadians are encouraged to not only pack toys and school supplies but to also include a photo or personal message for the child who will be receiving the shoebox.
The average shoebox is categorized by sex and age, and includes items such as: stuffed animals, small musical instruments, hair clips, toy jewelry, T-shirts, socks and hygiene items."I love being around the people and going through the shoeboxes and getting them ready to be sent off to kids in other countries."
-Leanne Krell, an Operation Christmas Child volunteer
"I love being around the people and going through the shoeboxes and getting them ready to be sent off to kids in other countries," said Leanne Krell while she was sorting through a shoebox at her station.
Krell has volunteered for Operation Christmas Child for the past five years.
"One of the things I love most about being here is just knowing that I have done something to encourage a child in another country, just knowing that they have the hope and joy in receiving a gift," Krell adds.
"To receive a shoebox filled with stuff from people that they may never meet, from a country they may have never heard of, is just astounding for so many of them," explained King.
One volunteer present on the evening of Dec. 1, Juan Warkentin, could speak to this connection.
"I received a shoebox when I was about nine years old from my home country Nicaragua in South America," he said. "For us orphans it told us that someone really far away cared for us."
Warkentin grew up in an orphanage in Nicaragua where he didn't have much, before being adopted at the age of 13 by a family in Grand Prairie, Alta.
"For a lot of us at the orphanage getting a shoebox was the first time we'd ever received a gift," Warkentin explained. "It impacted a lot of my friends and myself."
Because there was a Christmas card with a home address and phone number included in Warkentin's shoebox, when he came to Canada to live with his new family, he was able to contact the people behind his shoebox and eventually meet them.
"I keep in touch with them to this day," Warkentin said with a smile.
- By JENNIFER PRICE