ATLANTA — After learning about a project that sends gift-filled shoe boxes to children in war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, Skip Heitzig thought his congregation might want to get involved.
So the pastor of Calvary Chapel, a nondenominational evangelical church in Albuquerque, N.M, introduced the idea to his parishioners one Sunday. He brought in a sample shoe box wrapped in Christmas paper and filled with small toys.
``I held up the contents, explained how to do it, and the boxes just started coming in after that,'' says the Rev. Heitzig, who estimates that between 6,000 and 7,000 boxes were collected. ``It was like an avalanche of gifts.''
Across the United States and Canada, thousands of individuals like those in Heitzig's congregation have wrapped shoe boxes as part of Operation Christmas Child - a project of Samaritan's Purse, a nonprofit Christian relief organization based in Boone, N.C. In its second year, Operation Christmas Child has mushroomed. About 120,000 boxes - up from 28,000 last year - will be delivered to children in Rwanda and Bosnia by Christmas Day, says Franklin Graham, director of Samaritan's Purse and son of evangelist Billy Graham.
The boxes are crammed with such items as dolls, crayons, stuffed animals, personal notes, and photographs. Children from church congregations created about half of the boxes, and the rest have flooded in from schools, 4-H clubs, and other groups that heard of the project. Some people have been extremely generous.
A woman from West Virginia, for example, arrived at Samaritan's Purse headquarters with a huge truck load of boxes. ``She showed up and said, `Mr. Graham, I understand you're collecting shoe boxes for God,''' Mr. Graham says. ``This lady had collected over 1,200 shoe boxes herself'' by going to malls and asking strangers to help the children in Bosnia and Rwanda.
``I was kind of interested - what do people in West Virginia, especially children who are poor themselves, give to people who are even poorer than they are,'' Graham says. ``I opened up some of the boxes and bless their hearts - one box had baseball cards in it, some jacks and some marbles; another box had a little doll, a little wool hat. They were giving out of their poverty, but they were giving. I think the success of the shoebox project is that it's a project even poor families can be a part of.''
Samaritan's Purse, which has provided more than $10 million in aid to Bosnia and Rwanda during the past two years, has offices in North Carolina, Canada, and London. It became involved in sending shoe boxes at the suggestion of an international ministry in Clwyd County, North Wales, called Operation Christmas Child All Year Round.
``They asked us last year if we would be their partner from the US, and we thought, that's a nice idea but we weren't sure it was something that people in this country would go for,'' Graham says.
``We thought we could do about 5,000 boxes, and when all was said and done we raised 28,000 from the US and Canada,'' he says.
JESSICA EASTMAN, an 11-year-old from Meridianville, Ala., learned of Operation Christmas Child through a local television program. She liked the idea and convinced her 4-H group to send some boxes. ``I think it will touch a whole lot of kids,'' she says.
The shoe boxes will be trucked into refugee camps and to some of the most forlorn areas in the two countries. ``There's war and killing, and there's not much joy and not much love being shown,'' Graham says. ``For many children this is the only little bit of joy they're going to have this season.''