It’s been nearly 20 years, and Kathy Butler still gets choked up when she thinks about the letter and its accompanying photo.

Butler and her husband were doing a youth camp at Southland Baptist Temple in Paducah. It was 1994, and they were looking for a mission to teach the kids. Shortly before, Butler had read an article by Franklin Graham about filling shoeboxes for children in Bosnia the previous year.

“I thought it was exactly what we wanted to do,” she said.

The couple set up a store for the kids to get items. They filled 10 boxes, included a letter in each and prayed over them.

Some time later, “we got a picture of the little guy who opened our shoebox, and a letter said what a blessing it was to receive that shoebox,” she said.

The box had gone from Paducah to Amman, Jordan.

“That’s what got me so excited — to know I’m looking at this picture of a beach ball we’d put in and toys and different things and that it was real,” she said “I got to see that, and it encouraged me, and we’ve been packing boxes ever since.”

All these years later, Butler is still amazed they heard back from one of their gift recipients. She hopes others will have the same experience.

Drop-off week for Operation Christmas Child is underway. Shoeboxes filled with gifts are being accepted through Monday, Nov. 22, at Immanuel Baptist Church, 1119 Market St., Metropolis. Times are 2-6 p.m. now through Saturday, Nov. 20; noon until 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21; and 9-11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 22. Shoeboxes will be distributed by Samaritan’s Purse to children throughout the world. A $9 donation helps with shipping cost.

For more information on accepted items and donations, visit samaritanspurse.org/occ or contact the church at 618-524-2729.

•••

Butler has been serving with Samaritan’s Purse for 12 years. She became the area coordinator 10 ½ years ago. Overseeing the mission in the corner of western Kentucky and southernmost Illinois, she works with drop-off facility coordinators, like Glenn Coram, pastor of Immanuel Baptist.

Immanuel is the drop-off location for Illinois’ southern seven counties.

“We have churches coming here, dropping off boxes all the way up in New Liberty, Dixon Springs, Karnak,” Coram said. “We get to be the ones who see and handle all of them and take the time to pray as we bring them in. We’ve had child bring in one box, a family to bring in 70, a group to bring in 100. It amazes me how many people are involved with it. I like to watch the kids do theirs. Kids make the best boxes because they know what kids want. Little ones amaze me of how they want to give the gifts. They’re fun to watch. I’ve had a lot of kids over the years say they wish they could get a shoebox for Christmas. They see it as a treasure box of toys. It’s wonderful thinking this is going to go somewhere around the world.”

Immanuel has been a drop-off facility for around 15 years. Coram became the coordinator when he became the pastor in 2011.

“We’re so thankful Brother Glenn said they weren’t going to stop and that he’d pick up the torch and carry on,” Butler said. “I tease him all the time, but I didn’t have to worry about what goes on over here.”

As drop-off facility coordinator, Coram makes sure there is an accurate count of shoeboxes and where they came from. He noted the church receives close to 1,500 boxes yearly.

“Sometimes it’s a little chaotic when you have different volunteers and several coming in at a time,” he said. “Last year, we started offering curbside drop-off, and we’re doing that again — we’ll unload them for them.”

Those boxes are cartoned up — 15 to 17 boxes per carton — and delivered to the central drop-off facility in Hickory, Kentucky, where they’re packed into larger containers and shipped via semis to a processing center.

Another part of the local volunteer contingent is church relations. Becky Whitley, of Metropolis, “communicates a lot with the churches,” Butler said. “We’re very blessed to have three people (Coram, Whitley and Nelda Smothers) who are willing to give of their time and dedication to this ministry over here.”

•••

There are eight processing centers around the country — Charlotte and Boone in North Carolina; Atlanta; Orange Beach, California; Baltimore, Maryland; Dallas/Fort Worth; Denver; and Aurora.

“The processing center is a huge warehouse with assembly lines,” Smothers said. “You’re working nonstop.”

Smothers, of Metropolis, is the local OCC prayer warrior. She has been to several processing centers through the years. Volunteers ages 15 and older are allowed to assist. “Lots come in groups. Some will spend a week down there,” Smothers said.

At the processing centers, each box is inspected “to make sure there’s nothing in it that would stop the whole shipment,” Butler said.

“If there is anything that has to be removed, there’s a pile you can get items from to keep the box full of good things, so the integrity of the box is never changed,” Smothers said. “At the warehouse, you know what country you’re packing for; that’s exciting.”

Those volunteers also insert a booklet titled “The Greatest Gift” about who Jesus and God are in each box. The booklet is in the receiving country’s language.

“One shoebox is an eternal impact. If we have a church where all they’ve done is one or two (shoeboxes), the Lord uses that one,” Butler said. “I never want anybody to feel sad because that’s all they could do — that’s one child who is going to receive this and hear the gospel of Jesus. We’re just as thankful for one.”

The processing center crew takes a break “about every 60 to 90 minutes to do a shout-out,” Butler said. “They’ll either have a shoebox recipient or a pastor who’s been on a trip share a story. You pick up a box, and they have prayer. It’s pretty neat. I heard a little girl named Jackie give her testimony. She was in an orphanage and got her shoebox. There were 10 of them in her little room, and they all shared a toothbrush. They all got boxes and each got a toothbrush — they were so happy to have their own toothbrushes, they wanted to sleep with it.”

•••

Shoebox gifts are collected from 11 countries — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Finland, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea — and distributed to children in 170 territories and countries.

“They travel by so many ways — anyway anything can move, it’s used: a camel, a donkey, a boat, a canoe” to get the boxes to their young recipients, Smothers said.

And while shoeboxes are collected in November, they can be distributed at any time of year due to customs or weather.

Butler said the distribution process mirrors the collection process with drop-facility coordinators, prayer warriors, church relations in the receiving countries.

Samaritan’s Purse has ministry partners in its distribution areas who invite local communities. Some schools or orphanages will write to Samaritan’s Purse and ask if they can get shoeboxes. Butler noted OCC executives over the years “have realized if we go into that country and train their own people, (the ministry) so many more receptive and effective. (OCC has) grown so much in how to do ministry.”

The children and their families are brought to a location where the ministry partner shares the gospel and volunteers hand out shoeboxes to each “child and tell them that Jesus loves them in their language,” Butler said.

Coram emphasized the shoeboxes are given “without any commitment for anything else. There is no requirement for them to come to a class. The box is a gift.”

But that is a concept many have difficulty understanding. Butler witnessed it firsthand in 2017 when she went to Rwanda to give out shoeboxes.

“When you get there, the children don’t know” they’re there to receive a gift. They’re told “they are loved by God and somebody from another country has sent them a gift to show them God’s love,” Butler said. “That this is their’s to keep is something unreal to them.”

But when the realization hits, “to see those little faces and them to light up … the excitement,” Butler said. “We got to see one little boy who was deaf and mute. If you could have seen his face when he realized; his eyes got so big. I saw one little girl sniffing her soap and squealing and turning in circles. It was the best thing! We take a bar of soap so for granted. It was amazing to see the joy it brings to those precious children. The parents we got to talk with were so grateful. One little grandma would keep holding our hands and thanking us over and over.

“There’s just something about seeing it, to know this is real and touching lives,” Butler continued. “At one of the distributions, some of the parents were in the back while the children were up front and they were given the lesson about Jesus. At that distribution, there were 19 mommas and daddies who accepted the Lord at that time. It was amazing how one shoebox can touch so many lives.”

Butler said if they chose to come back, they ministry partner goes through “The Greatest Journey” study, which teaches them how to share the gospel with their families and friends. When they finish, they receive a New Testament in their own language.

•••

During the 2020 distribution, 9.1 millions shoebox gifts were given. Of those, 7.8 million were from the United States. Of those, 14,000 were from southernmost Illinois and the corner western Kentucky.

“And that was in a pandemic year,” Butler said. “We hope to do at least that many and more this year.”

Coram noted last year’s collection “was off because so many churches had a long time where they didn’t meet at all. (At Immanuel) we usually collect specific items throughout the year — one thing each month, something for boys and girls of the different ages. We were closed for almost three months, so that threw our schedule off. And no one could go shopping. Everything was thrown off.”

There are still a few days to put together a shoebox and drop it off.

Any kind of shoebox is accepted. There are extras at the Union Baptist Association, located on 12th Street in Metropolis. Coram noted durable plastic shoeboxes are a gift within a gift because they can be used to transport other items, such as water.

Boxes cannot contain war toys, toothpaste, anything liquid or candy of any kind. Boxes should be closed with a rubber band and have a label identifying whether it’s for a boy or girl and the age group (2 to 4 years old; 5 to 9 years old: and 10 to 14 years-old). A complete list of acceptable items and instructions is available at samaritanspurse.org/occ. Options for donating $9 to cover shipping costs are also available on the website. There is also a “build a box” option available online.

•••

Butler said her Rwanda trip made her shoebox experience come “full circle. It’s very rare Americans are there to give it out. I was very blessed to get to go.

“… It’s amazing to see how this brings people together,” she continued. “Just to think about me getting that letter in 1994 when we packed the box. They didn’t tell us to put a letter with our address. We just did it, thinking we’d get a pen pal. I think for me, that’s what the Lord used to get me so excited — to know He’s using these gifts. It gives us that common ground to get to know one another and encourage one another. We all know we need that these days.”

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