Over the past 20 years, more than 100 million boxes of donated items have been distributed to needy children throughout the world. Now working toward its second 100 million, Operation Christmas Child has selected Antioch Church on the Rock as one of its local collection sites and is asking East County residents to open their hearts and participate in the world's largest Christmas project of its kind.

During National Collection Week, Nov. 18 to 25, collection site volunteers will be on hand to receive gift-filled shoeboxes containing hygiene items, school supplies, toys and personal photos and letters. Hoping for an increase over last year's total of 22,500, the East County goal this year is 29,000 boxes.

Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelical organization headed by Franklin Graham. East Bay Coordinator of Operation Christmas Child, Barbara Hart, recalled how the idea began with a British layman from Wales named Dave Cook who started the project in a Romanian orphanage in 1990.

"When the idea became too large for him and his wife to do it themselves, he reached out to Samaritan's Purse who already had an organization for reaching out to other countries and helping them," Hart said. "They would go into other countries with boxes for the children and to spread the word of Jesus Christ."


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The shoebox gifts are collected by people all over the world and have been distributed to needy children in more than 130 countries -- places such as Haiti, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Southeast Asia and Uganda.

Since a shoebox is relatively small, its contents are important. Each box must include a $7 donation to pay for shipping. The next highest priority is personal hygiene products, so a toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap are important. Of almost equal importance are school supplies including pencils, erasers and paper.

"Many of the children are not allowed to go to school unless they have pencils and paper," Hart said. "So in many countries the children that receive these boxes will be allowed to go to school."

Hart added that boys love baseball caps and sunglasses while the girls enjoy receiving teddy bears, dolls and jewelry. Equally welcome are photos and letters from the donating family and their children.

Donors can select a boy or girl as their recipient as well as the age range, 2 to 4 years, 5 to 9 years or 10 to 14 years. "We find that not as many boxes go out for boys 10 to 14 and 2- to 4-year-olds, so we're letting people know," Hart said.

People can come to the collection site to label their boxes, but if they go online to pay the donation and register, they can follow their box and receive an email telling them the country where the box was delivered.

Securely wrapped with rubber bands, the gift boxes travel from Antioch to Dublin to the processing center in Southern California. There each box is opened, to be screened for any liquids such as shampoo, chocolate or any war toys, all of which are removed. "Other than that we like to leave the box with the integrity with which it was packed," Hart said. "The only time we touch it is if those items need to come out."

Aside from helping needy children, Operation Christmas Child's goal is for children to learn about Jesus Christ. Some choose to follow a learning program called "The Greatest Journey" that arrives prior to the boxes.

But Hart says that donors need not subscribe to the organization's religious philosophy to make a difference. Around the holidays, when people are thinking of those close to them, it is important to consider how Operation Christmas Child is helping children.

"It's the children that suffer. Just the fact of reaching out and being able to bring happiness to a child that doesn't have opportunities that our children do in the United States," Hart said. "It's giving to a child. It doesn't matter your religion or if you attend church. We find that the heart of the people reach the children."

HOW TO HELP
What: Operation Christmas Child
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 18-25
Where: Antioch Church on the Rock, 50 Walton Lane, Antioch
Info: 925-567-8580; www.samaritanspurse.org.