The simple act of caring goes a long way.
Just ask John Atkinson.
As a volunteer with Operation Christmas Child for a quarter century, the longtime Marlton resident who now calls Marietta, Pennsylvania, home has seen the life- changing impact a seemingly small gesture can make.
“Just the fact that somebody cares, that can mean a whole lot to people,” Atkinson said.
Operation Christmas Child is a perfect example of a simple act of caring having a big impact. The goal of the program, started by Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, is to provide God’s love in a tangible way to children in need around the world by providing them with a wrapped shoebox filled with gifts – small toys, hygiene items and school supplies – along with a personalized note and photo. Since its inception in 1993, Operation Christmas Child has distributed more than 178 million shoeboxes.
“It’s just something that’s heartwarming to know that you will affect somebody’s life that you’ll never meet,” Atkinson said. “These boxes aren’t only changing kids’ lives, but they’re changing communities’ lives, too.”
Operation Christmas Child’s National Collection Week is Nov. 16-23, giving church families and the community at large an opportunity to contribute filled shoeboxes for distribution. There are three local curbside drop-off spots: Grace Bible Church in Mt. Laurel, Central Baptist Church in Palmyra, and Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Tabernacle.
As a Mt. Laurel drop-off team leader, Atkinson helps coordinate the collection for the program he first brought to Wiley Church in Marlton 25 years ago. Prompted by an ad he saw in a magazine, Atkinson first assembled shoeboxes with his wife and drove them to the Lancaster area for collection.
“On our way back, I said to my wife, ‘I think we need something closer to home,’” Atkinson recalled.
Since then, Atkinson has had a hand in collecting approximately 450,000 shoeboxes, and it is a labor of love he wasn’t willing to give up, even when he moved to Pennsylvania. He still comes back to volunteer each year, a commitment made easier with his daughter living in nearby Medford.
“Operation Christmas Child is just another thing that I feel is just needed,” Atkinson said. “I’ll do my little part. God will take care of the rest, take (the shoeboxes) where they need to go. If you see the faces on these kids around the world, it’s absolutely amazing.”
Incorporating God’s message into Operation Christmas Child is an essential part of the program. In addition to all of the physical objects, each shoebox is also filled with prayer – of love, of hope, of safety.
“Prayer is our communication with God,” Barbara Paczkowski said. “He already knows what child is going to receive each shoebox. Our prayer is that in some small way, a child’s needs are going to be met through the gift of a simple shoebox, and more importantly, that this gift will lead the children to the greatest gift, which is Jesus Christ.
“That’s the prayer that we put into the boxes.”
Barbara and her husband, Rich, are Operation Christmas Child coordinators for the South Central New Jersey team, which covers Burlington and Ocean counties. The Whiting residents and members of Cedar Creek Community Church have been involved for 18 years.
Why they do it is simple: It’s for the kids.
“We hear stories from children who have received these shoeboxes, and it is life changing for so many of them,” Barbara said.
The Paczkowskis are seeing a lot of excitement for the program this year. The South Central Team’s goal this year is 16,001 shoeboxes – symbolizing never losing track of that one child.
“And we always want to pack one more box than last year,” Rich added.
Adults who received shoeboxes as children often say their favorite part was a personal note and photo from the gift giver.
“It’s something they can connect with,” Barbara explained. “Through that note, they feel the love of Christ coming to them from that person. That’s always really important, and we encourage people to do that.”
Shoeboxes should also include one “wow” item – a stuffed animal, baby doll, soccer ball with pump – little toys, school supplies and hygiene items. Items that should be avoided include foods and liquids, toothpaste, toy guns, and camouflage items.
“Since this shoebox may be the only gift this child receives, we ask you pack durable items that will bring lasting joy to the child,” Rich said.
“This box is the only gift some of these kids are going to ever, ever, ever get in their lifetime,” Atkinson emphasized.
This year, things are a little different for Operation Christmas Child due to COVID-19. Samaritan’s Purse is providing masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for all volunteers. All drop-offs will be curbside during collection week – no one will need to leave their car.
“Basically a very high priority is that our donors feel safe coming out to our locations this year. We don’t want people to be afraid. We don’t want people to stay away,” Barbara said. “Samaritan’s Purse is doing everything possible to keep the collection going and to help everybody feel safe.”
It remains to be seen if the pandemic will affect the amount of donations.
“I’m always worried when stuff like this goes on. Obviously over 25 years I’ve seen the economy go up and down. It’s always worked out for the most part,” Atkinson said. “It’s going to be different, but we’ll get through it.”
Every shoebox needs a $9 donation to cover shipping and project costs. If made online, donors can receive a “Follow Your Box” special label to track where their donation ends up. To learn more about contributing to Operation Christmas Child, including how to wrap and pack a shoebox or give a monetary donation and pack one virtually, visit www.samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child. For drop-off locations and times, visit www.samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child/drop-off-locations.