Riding into a remote Panamanian village on the back of a cattle truck in 2003, Kenai resident MaryJane Mills said she realized the importance and significance of the boxes she was handing out to poor children.
Inside those shoeboxes were gifts, candy, toys and useful items like toothbrushes and combs. But as important was the connection made, she said.
“They basically subsistence lived, they didn’t have grocery stores at all,” said Mills, office manager of the Alaska and Far East Russia Office of Samaritan’s Purse. “They were native-type people that live out in the jungle of Panama.”
Although charitable individuals from across the United States filled the boxes she handed out then, Mills said she personally fills up and sends out four or five boxes every year during the holidays.
“That’s a small number — there are families out there who will do 30 boxes because they do it all year,” she said. “The average church will do 200 boxes and we have several participating churches here.”
Mills said about 1,500 shoeboxes have gone out the door of the Soldotna Samaritan’s Purse office to be filled and returned by Peninsula residents. But she hopes that number will grow as the deadline for returning them approaches.
The shoeboxes are part of Operation Christmas Child organized by Samaritan’s Purse. The program has collected and distributed more than 94 million shoeboxes to poor and suffering children in more than 130 countries since 1993, according to a press release. This year, the program hopes to collect another 9 million gift boxes and 14,000 from Alaska.
Local residents can pick up a box from the Samaritan’s Air Hangar at the Soldotna Airport, 565 Funny River Road and fill it with toys, candy, hygiene items, school supplies, T-shirts, socks, ball caps, sunglasses, jewelry, flashlights or any other items, Mills said.
“We have decorative shoe boxes here at the hangar if they decide they want to pick them up,” she said. “So you decide if you want a boy or a girl and some of them are age appropriate. There is a break up, but you can do it any way you want, 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14 are the age categories.”
Mill said the Peninsula’s box drive has been operating since the late 1990s and while participation at the state level has been steady, local interest in donating boxes has picked up.
“Especially this year, it seems like more people are interested in it,” she said.
Mills said boxes must not include liquids, breakable items, perishable foods or foods that can easily melt, medications or vitamins. No war-related items are allowed either, she said as many of the boxes go to children in war-torn areas.
“We try not to put in any reminders of the war, of the horror they might have gone through,” she said. “Some of the places we have been are orphanages where the kids have orphaned because of war and I’ve got a picture in my office here of a little boy who they shot his mother and dad in front of him and then poured gasoline on him and lit him on fire. Well, he lived and we’re not going to send him reminders of a solider.”
Along with the box, the organization also hands out a booklet telling biblical stories about Jesus and Christmas, Mills said.
“We like to protect the integrity of the box, so if you make a box, that’s the box that the kid will get,” she said. “We don’t take things in or take things out.”
Mills suggested residents who fill up a box include a note to the child with some personal details and a picture of themselves or their family. Mills said she has also received letters back from youth in Russia and the Philippines.
“The kids like to see who sent the box because it is so foreign to them; ‘Who would do this for me?’” she said. “And once they see that someone else got a letter or a picture, they start digging through their box looking for that letter or that picture to try and connect to the person who made the box.”
Residents must return boxes to Samaritan’s Purse by 10 a.m. Nov. 19. Hours of collection during National Collection Week, from Nov. 12-19 are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 260-1946.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.