For me, the holiday season begins with a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child

The week before Thanksgiving I drove to Susanville to deliver several shoeboxes filled with toys, hygiene items and school supplies to the local collection site for Operation Christmas Child.

One of the boxes held my selections for a young girl. On top of the hairclips, pencils, lip gloss, bright socks and color crayons was a handmade stuffed animal I picked up at the Harvest Festival from a local crafter, Theresa Pearson. That was the “wow” toy the child would see when she opened the box.

For years I have faithfully filled a box for Operation Christmas Child, a worldwide outreach to children administered by Samaritan’s Purse. First I participated while attending Warehouse Christian Ministries in Sacramento and now as a part of Calvary Chapel Westwood, the church my husband pastors.

Each year the box is different, filled full of treasures to bless an imaginary child pictured only in my mind. Although millions of boxes are shipped around the world there are no duplicates because individual shoppers of all ages seek special items for their box. Staff at Operation Christmas Child described the count at 20 years as “one hundred million gifts packed in one hundred million ways.” They are assembled with anticipation and love and sent off with prayer, each giver hoping the box will bring joy to its recipient.

In a book published in 2013 to commemorate the 20th year of Operation Christmas Child, Franklin Graham, president and Chief Executive Officer for Samaritan’s Purse, captured the impact of these gifts through a story he wrote about one recipient.

It was 1993, the first year of the project, and boxes were shipped to war ravaged Bosnia. One day Lejla, a 12 year old girl, left home to walk 5 miles to school in arctic weather wearing old shoes with ripped out toes held together with wire. She was cold, hungry and fearful of the future. Her despair was so great, she detoured through a landmine field where her best friend had been killed and purposely walked through an area known as “Sniper Alley.”

Yet in spite of her efforts, she arrived at school safely and that day a man was handing out shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child. When she opened her box, she found a new pair of sneakers, which were her size and fit perfectly. Also she found a 12-pack of pencils, which was of great need since she shared one pencil with all 58 classmates. A new notebook replaced the one she had been using for three years.

That night she wrote a letter to Jesus, thinking there was someone in the United States by that name because the man distributing the boxes told her they were from Jesus. The next day at school, when she gave her letter to the man who had given her the box, he explained Jesus was the Son of God who was born to pay the penalty for the sins of all people who received the gift of salvation.

She knew God had answered her cry the day before on the landmine field — “If you have any mercy, could you forgive me of the terrible sin and show me your mercy?” The god she was taught to worship was harsh, punishing people for their sins, offering no hope.

Lejla now lives in the United States and speaks on behalf of Operation Christmas Child.

She said, “My life really started when the man from America handed me the box. I’m really no older than Operation Christmas Child, because after meeting the Christmas Child — the Lord Jesus Christ — I found life.

This project now ushers in my holiday season. Collection is before Thanksgiving reminding me of all the riches I have. It focuses my attention on giving. Most importantly I remember what it is like to meet the Christmas Child and find life. That truly makes me want to celebrate.