Christmas arrived early Monday at Park Forest Baptist Church and Centre County Christian Academy in the form of several Santa bags’ worth of gifts.
About 150 shoeboxes filled with toys, candy, clothing, school supplies and other items were dropped off at the church on the first day of the national collection week for Operation Christmas Child. It’s a Christian charity for children in need overseas, sponsored through the international Samaritan’s Purse organization.
At CCCA, the initial haul was even bigger — almost 700 boxes.
“That’s a very, very good day,” said Crystal Haagen, volunteer area coordinator for the Operation Christmas Child’s central Pennsylvania region.
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Haagen oversees several relay stations collecting shoe boxes from churches, organizations and individuals until Monday. In addition to Park Forest Baptist Church and CCCA, the Faith Alive Fellowship in Spring Mills, the McAlevys Fort Presbyterian Church in McAlevys Fort and the Lighthouse Evangelical Church in West Decatur are serving as local drop-off sites during the collection week.
After Monday, the boxes all will go to CCCA, where they’ll be loaded on trucks and sent to mid-Atlantic distribution centers near Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., for processing and shipment.
Last year, Haagen’s regional relay stations amassed more than 11,500 boxes destined to bring smiles to the faces of children in impoverished, sometimes war-torn communities. Many live in orphanages.
Haagen can personally speak to the joy. A veteran of nine campaigns, she traveled to Peru one year on a mission and watched children receive boxes in schools and churches.
“Just to see them open the gifts, it’s so neat,” she said.
Operation Christmas Child said it has sent 113 million gift-filled shoeboxes in 23 years.
By visiting the Samaritan’s Purse website, donors can get information about what to pack. The charity recommends using an empty, regular cardboard or plastic shoebox. Boxes may be wrapped, with the lid kept separate, though wrapping isn’t required.
Labels to designate boxes for boys or girls — ages 2 to 4, 5 to 9 or 10 to 14 — can be downloaded and printed.
Suggested toys include dolls, toy cars, stuffed animals, kazoos, harmonicas, yo-yos, jump ropes and balls.
“They love stuffed animals,” Haagen said. “Even the teenagers love stuffed animals.”
Other recommended items are school supplies, non-liquid hygiene items such as toothbrushes and soap, hard candy and accessories such as T-shirts, socks, hats, sunglasses, watches, jewelry and flashlights.
“It’s the simplest things that they love,” Haagen said.
Military-themed toys, chocolate, aerosol cans and anything made from glass are not permitted.
A $7 donation per box covers shipping costs. Donors can write a check and include it in an envelope inside a box; a combined donation should cover multiple boxes. Those who give online can learn by Dec. 23 about the box’s destinations.
Haagen said recipients love reading notes from donors and photos included in boxes. Often, she said, children write back if contact information is provided.
Volunteer Phyllis Barr, the local campaign church relations coordinator, has been delighted to receive eight letters, including two last year. She said she loves children, and that volunteering with Operation Christmas Child has allowed her to continue helping them after a career spent with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“When I retired, this appealed to me,” Barr said. “I jumped in with both feet, and I haven’t regretted it.”
Haagen, a grandmother six times over, treasures a memory from her Peru trip when she brought scarves her mother had knit. Down to her last four, she gave one each to two girls.
Then two boys asked for the rest. Puzzled by their interest, she asked them why.
Their response was a lasting present to her.
“They said that they never had given their mothers a gift,” Haagen said. “By that time, I lost it. I was a mess.”