WINTHROP - Santas elves are alive and well at Victory Baptist Church in Winthrop.
The church is one of the local sites where collections are being taken for Operation Christmas Child, an effort in which shoeboxes wrapped in colorful paper are filled with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and notes of encouragement and sent to children in other countries by any means necessary, whether its boat plane, dog sled and even elephant.
National Collection Week for the program, which is a project of Samaritans Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization headed by Franklin Graham, will be held from Monday to Nov. 25.
This aspect of Samaritans Purse started in 93, said Shirley LaGarry, one of the volunteers who is participating in the effort at Victory Baptist Church, which is labeled as a relay center to collect items.
Among the others working with her is Miriam McKinnon.
Miriam and I talked about this before. We think we may have started (at Victory Baptist Church) around 95, Ms. LaGarry said.
It was on a small scale at first. We werent actually as involved as we are now. Weve been a relay center for quite a number of years, Ms. McKinnon said.
She said churches or organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Kiwanis, bring gift-filled shoeboxes to the church, where volunteers there are responsible for putting them in cartons and sending them by tractor-trailer to a collection center in Plattsburgh.
This is actually a world-wide mission, Ms. McKinnon said. Its about giving to children that have really never had anything but hope.
For Victory Baptist Church, one of their focuses is on school supplies, according to Ms. LaGarry.
Over the years Miriam and I have done a lot of conferences and spoken with a lot of the people involved. Weve found there is a great need for school supplies. We found that many of these children cannot even participate in school without supplies. Its a big drive in our church. Each box gets crayons, paper, pencils with erasers and pencil sharpers. The older children get colored pencils and the younger children get markers, she said.
We have heard stories of children who were trying to erase their paper and refuse them, Ms. McKinnon said.
Operation Christmas Child has collected and delivered more than 100 million shoebox gifts to suffering children in more than 100 countries since 1993. Now in its 20th year, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect another 9.8 million gift-filled shoeboxes this year.
A lot of these shoeboxes work toward poverty-stricken areas and orphanages. Weve always included toothpaste and toothbrushes and we try to put stuffed animals in so a child has something to love on. Flashlights are another great thing that can go, Ms. McKinnon said.
Everything thats donated is put to good use, she said.
When they go from the relay center to the collection center, they want the integrity of the box to stay with what the person intended. Nothing is wasted, Ms. McKinnon said.
She noted that some families that have received the shoebox gifts over the years now live in the United States and still take part in the program - this time packing up items to go to others.
Some have even gone back to the country and helped distribute the shoeboxes, she said.
Theyve told us this is often the very first gift that many of these children have ever received. Their stories just give you goose bumps. We really have no conception of what it truly is like, Ms. LaGarry said.
A lot of people ask us, do any of these boxes stay here in the United States? The answer is some boxes do stay here in the United States. However, this is international relief for children. I know that there are children in this country that suffer. I know from living in St. Lawrence County my whole life that we are not in a very economically uplifted community. I know there are people who do without, she said.
The local collection effort has been very successful over the years, according to the women. Ms. LaGarry said that last year 6,684 boxes were collected in the four-county Northern Adirondack region consisting of St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties.
St. Lawrence County alone collected 2,210 boxes. Thats over 30 percent of the total shoeboxes collected in four counties, she said.
Ms. McKinnon said they make an effort to keep others informed about the program.
Shirley and I speak to churches and some of the community groups if theyre interested, to tell them about Operation Christmas Child. Weve gotten to know a lot about people in the area, she said.
Its truly a community effort, Ms. LaGarry said. There are a lot of businesses locally that donate.
The third week in November is when collections take place at relay centers around the country, when individuals or groups can bring in boxes to contribute to the effort.
If you cant get out of your home and have a computer, you can go to swww.samaritanspurse.org and type in Operation Christmas Child. You can actually build a box right on line, Ms. LaGarry said.
Ms. McKinnon goes on line to pay for the churchs shipping - $7 a box - and receives a bar code that tracks the packages.
Because of the bar codes, we will actually get an email saying what country our boxes went to. Its really an awesome program, Ms. McKinnon said.
Operation Christmas Child is only one aspect of Samaritans Purse. Another one of their efforts, Childrens Heart Project, arranges life-saving operations for hundreds of children who live in countries where the required medical expertise and equipment are not available. They provide airfare for the children, a parent and a translator, and locate evangelical Christian churches and families willing to host the groups.
These boxes are often a segue into communities, Ms. LaGarry said.
They try to teach people to be sustainable. Operation Christmas Child is just a piece of Samaritans purpose, Ms. McKinnon added.
The Victory Baptist Church collection site will be open to accept donations from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 23, 12 to 4 p.m. Nov. 24 and 8 to 10 a.m. Nov. 25. Theyre located at 601 state Highway 11C in Winthrop.