Friday, December 13, 2013

Processing: Lessons Learned at the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Processing Center

For many years now, I've been involved with Samaritan's Purse packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.  If you're not familiar, Samaritan's Purse collects Christmas gifts for children all over the world.  Small toys, school supplies, and hygiene items are packed into shoeboxes.  Over the past 20 years, over 100 million children in over 130 countries have been blessed by receiving a box.

For the past 4 or 5 years, I have wanted to volunteer at a shoebox processing center--ever since I learned of their existence.  At the processing center, volunteers take out any inappropriate items, add filler items if needed, tape up the shoeboxes and pack them for shipping.  When a volunteer at the processing center closes the box, the last thing they see is the first thing a child will see when opening his gift.

Gives me goosebumps.

Last week, I finally got the opportunity to go, along with a group of moms from my kids' school.

MomoftheWildThings, Court, Me, A J Beautiful Perfect Woman,
(more than a) Bible Study Girl, Sara
Not pictured: Leslie
What a good looking group we are!  Beautiful, inside and out. 
Love these incredible women.
Want to be more like them.
We heard lots of stories while we were at the processing center, a couple of which really touched my heart.  There was the story of a shipment that was delayed for months.  Weather, customs, and other delays kept happening until finally it was August and the shoeboxes arrived at their destination. August!

There was one little girl who was particularly disappointed by all the delays.  She was so excited to finally be receiving her shoebox, and when she opened it up, there were balloons, streamers, noise makers...all kinds of supplies for a birthday party.

It was her birthday.

Photo: At Operation Christmas Child and found this in one of the lids.  It gives you hope for humanity that a child "Gets" what she was offering to this child.
This is what one member of our group saw when she opened up a shoebox
Another shoebox made its way to a little boy in a small village in Africa.  He opened up the box and inside there was...a bunch of white socks.  That was it.  A box full of white socks.

The volunteers who were helping with the distribution tried to take the box from him and give him another one, but he wanted to keep it.  Turns out this boy had burned his feet severely, and needed clean socks to protect them from infection.

God knows which box is meant for which of His children and will get it there in His perfect timing.

We were so blessed by our time in the processing center, and we are definitely planning on making this an annual outing.  I want to urge you to help with this incredible effort by packing a shoebox, volunteering at a processing center, or donating money--it is such a worthwhile endeavor, and a mighty blessing to the children, their families, and their communities.  It takes just a little love to make a huge difference in a child's life.

To help you out, below I've shared just a few of the things we learned about packing shoeboxes after sorting through hundreds of them in a few hours.

For more information about Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child, click here.

Consider packing a box for an older or younger child.
When packing a shoebox, you get to decide if it's for a girl or a boy, and there are 3 age categories to choose from.  By far the most common boxes we saw were for 5-9 year old girls, followed by 5-9 year old boys.  It makes sense--that's the easiest age to pack for--but as a mama to two boys in the 10-14 category, it made my heart heavy to think about all those older and younger children either not getting a box or getting a box that is not age appropriate.

Not sure what to pack for the older kids?  Try items that will help them learn a skill or earn a living.  We saw a great box for an older boy that had hand tools, bungee cords, and fishing equipment in it.  Consider a sewing kit and some fabric for an older girl.

Don't pack food.
The only food items that can go in the boxes are hard candies and gum.  We had several boxes come through that were jam packed with yummy things like Pringles, Cheez-its, and Rice Krispie Treats, which all had to be taken out of the boxes.  Even fruit snacks can't be sent in shoeboxes.  It made us so sad to think about someone packing all that food out of love, thinking they're doing a great thing, and having it all be a waste (items that are taken out of the boxes are donated to other agencies, so the food did help someone, just not in the way intended).

Do include personal hygiene items, shoes, and clothes.
I know they're not as fun to pack as toys and school supplies, but imagine how it would feel to not have a toothbrush or soap.  I was surprised by how many boxes did not contain these basic supplies.  Clothes and shoes can be hard to come by, too, and we heard so many stories of seemingly random items going to exactly the right person.  Just do it.  Another thing to think about--if you're packing a box for an older girl, consider packing feminine hygiene supplies.

Think about how items will be used.
We had a lot of boxes come through with art supplies, like colored pencils or crayons, but nothing to write on.  Do pack school and art supplies, but consider how they will be used and make sure you pack paper to write on and a pencil or crayon sharpener.  If you pack a flashlight, pack extra batteries, or pack one that's crank-powered.  Just think about how an item will be used long term.

Consider donating filler items.
If you live near a processing center (Atlanta; Charlotte; Boone, NC; Denver; Honolulu; Minneapolis; Orange County, California; Dallas/Fort Worth) , consider dropping off a bunch of filler items, rather than packing shoeboxes.  When we needed to remove something from a shoebox, or a box came through that was kind of empty, we would put a filler item or two (or ten) into the box.  We had one box come through the line that had colored pencils in it.  That's it.  Just one box of 12 colored pencils.  So we filled it up with filler items, but, and sorry if I offend you by saying this, but the filler items sucked.  Seriously.  There were these weird plastic things that even we didn't know what they were for, some ball-point pens, just weird random stuff that no one wanted so they donated it to Operation Christmas Child.  Next year, instead of packing several boxes, I will pack just one or two, and then donate a bunch of filler items.

Consider your container.
I know lots of people like to pack gift items in plastic shoeboxes, and that's a great idea because the container is reusable, but consider this: It costs Samaritan's Purse the same amount of money to ship a container of shoeboxes whether it contains 9 boxes, or 22 boxes.  Plastic shoeboxes are bulky and oddly shaped and take up more space in the container, so we can't pack as many per carton.  In addition, many of the plastic boxes are already cracked by the time they get to the processing center, and can't be used anyway.  A great compromise is to use a sturdy cardboard shoebox, and pack a lightweight reusable tote bag inside.  We all have way too many of those anyway.

Also consider the size of your box.  We saw some boxes come through that were huge!  They must have contained boots.  And I know the donors thought bigger is better, but all we could think about was that we could have made 3 regular size shoeboxes from that one big box.  And how about the kids who receive the boxes?  It's great for the kid who gets the big one, but how does everyone else feel about receiving the smaller ones, after seeing one child get a big box?

Follow your shoebox.
This is a great feature.  Samaritan's Purse asks for a donation of $7 per box to help with shipping costs.  It's completely optional, and even if you don't donate, your box will get to the child it's meant for, but if you make your donation online, you can then print out a barcode label for your box.  The barcode will be scanned in the processing center, and when your box gets to where it's going, you'll get an email saying where it went.  So cool, and a great way to help your kids learn about geography.  I was the scanner person for most of our shift, and while I had lots of barcodes to scan, I was surprised that there wasn't a higher percentage.

Shop Year 'Round
You might be wondering why I'm telling you all this right now.  After all, the national shoebox collection dates have passed, so unless you live near a processing center, a box packed now will have to wait until next years' collection.  Well, yes, that's true, but consider shopping year 'round for shoebox items.  You'll be able to pick up items inexpensively if you're always checking for clearance items and sales, and you'll spread the cost out over the year as well.  If you end up with too much stuff, remember you can donate it to be used as filler items, or just save it for the following year.

Finally, consider shopping for a cause.
As you know, I'm an Amazon affiliate, which means that when you make a purchase through my links to Amazon, I will receive, at no extra charge to you, a small commission.  This year, my commissions are going to Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child.  So far this year I've earned over $120 in commissions for Operation Christmas Child, thanks to all of you!  So if you have any last minute Christmas shopping to do, please consider going through my Amazon links.


  1. Great article with some really awesome tips and great insight! We're excited to get our shopping and packing underway!

  2. I totally agree on the sucky filler. Many churches seem to think that because they sell "pack a shoebox online" that OCC will fill boxes with that stuff. We had cake decoration crap! I'll be writing more on our "fillers" from last week in my blog posts tomorrow and the rest of the week.

  3. My church collects items for OCC year round then hosts a packing party yearly in November. Fundraising is also a year round effort.

    From what I have experienced, the giving inspired by OCC is truly a blessing to both giver and receiver. My kids have learned so much from watching OCC videos online and then taking part in donating items & packing boxes. They learn about how kids live in different parts of the world, how to be considerate of others and their faith in God has grown as well.

    OCC has blessed my life so much..given me opportunities to connect with people in my church & community involved. Challenged me to trust God in so many ways. And the testimonies from OCC are a blessing in itself.

    Thank you for sharing your story!


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