Christmas might seem a long way off, but one organization hopes Central Kentucky families will begin thinking now about filling a shoebox with small gifts to bring joy to a child in another country.
Operation Christmas Child volunteers hosted kickoff events for this season at Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington and First United Methodist Church in Richmond on Saturday.
Through the program, they hope to collect 18,000 shoeboxes from about a dozen counties, said David Holbrook, who volunteers as church relations coordinator for Operation Christmas Child's Bluegrass area team. The team has about 26 year-round volunteers, he said.
The boxes, filled with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and other trinkets, are distributed to needy children around the world.
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Last year, 16,179 boxes were collected from the Bluegrass area, and 143,216 were collected statewide, Holbrook said. Eight million children received boxes in 2010.
Operation Christmas Child is a ministry of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief and evangelism organization led by Franklin Graham.
John Mark Toby, pastor of Beacon Hill Baptist Church in Somerset, went to Ecuador in March 2010 to help distribute the boxes to children at orphanages, schools, churches and other locations.
"It was an incredible, incredible experience," he said. "That may be the only gift that child will ever get."
Toby recalled how one woman from Texas who was helping distribute the boxes in Ecuador said she and her daughters had packed all "girl boxes" except one that could have been for a boy or girl.
As the group handed out boxes that had been shipped to South America, they were short one box for a boy.
The woman was prepared to give the boy a girl's box when "she realized, 'Hey, this is my box,' " the one she had packed for a boy or girl, Toby said. "She was just beside herself."
He said Operation Christmas Child was a good way for families to "get the kids in the spirit of giving."
Boxes will be collected the week of Nov. 14-21. For drop-off locations and other information, go to Samaritanspurse.org and click on the Operation Christmas Child link. To volunteer or reach local organizers, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Local event information also is available at Facebook.com/BluegrassOCC.