SPRING HILL — Imagine a 10-year-old receiving a Christmas present and being told for the first time that Jesus loves him or her. Operation Christmas Child's goal is to make that happen for millions of needy children around the world this year.
The ministry began in 1993 as a project of Samaritan's Purse, an organization of international relief and evangelism headed by Franklin Graham. Since then, more than 69 million shoe box gifts have been hand-delivered to children in more than 100 countries suffering from natural disaster, war, terrorism, disease, famine and poverty.
The shoe boxes are filled with items such as school supplies, toys, hygiene items, candy, watches and flashlights that have been donated by churches and groups of caring individuals.
Hernando residents can take part in the effort.
After participating for the past several years, Spring Hill Baptist Church agreed this year to be the local relay center to collect the gifts that will be distributed by Samaritan's Purse. Filled shoe boxes will be collected by the church during National Collection Week, Nov. 16 to 23.
"We're hoping to get 2,000 boxes," said Lisa Foster, director of the children's choir at the church. "We really believe in the program. Some of these kids have nothing, and to get the school supplies and the crayons and dolls, it means so much to them."
Everyday items like toothbrushes and T-shirts may not seem like much, but they can make a huge difference to children in ravaged countries, Foster said.
"When you start watching the videos of the kids opening the presents and reading some of the testimonies, it's so touching," she said. "The project reaches out to so many children in places like Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and even China this year."
While the entire church is involved in the project, Foster's choir is participating in a special way. On Oct. 30, the children, ages 4 to 12, presented a musical that depicted what the program is all about.
As a result, 250 audience members accepted the shoe boxes, which had been used as props in the musical, to fill with gifts.
On Wednesday, Jeb Berleth, who is the relay center coordinator for the project and also the commander of the church's Awana youth program, handed out another 100 shoe boxes to be filled by the young people in his charge.
Students from the church's Spring Hill Christian Academy are participating, as are other churches and organizations that will collect shoe boxes to turn in to Spring Hill Baptist.
Charlene's School of Dance is one of them.
"We started doing Operation Christmas Child last year," said Charlene Harris, owner of the school. "The kids had a really good time doing it. It is easy, not really expensive, and I liked it because the kids could do it themselves. They pick out the stuff to put in the box, they wrap it, and in some cases they used their allowances to pay for it."
Harris uses the project to talk with her students about where the boxes might end up and what the children receiving them might think.
"All around, it is a good thing and a very worthy cause," she said. "Children today more than ever before need to be involved in projects that make them give of themselves so that they can realize how blessed they are."
To Foster, the evangelistic message that accompanies each shoe box is an important part of the program.
"They also are given a booklet with the Gospel message, and many children are coming to know Jesus because of the gift that initiates the dialogue on that," she said. "They also offer follow-up with the children if they want to continue with the Bible study."
The shoe boxes may be decorated, with the box and lid wrapped separately. Foster said some people purchase 6-quart plastic boxes to fill so the children can then use them for storage. Boxes should have a rubber band around them.
Those filling boxes are able to choose whether the gift will be for a boy or girl and can designate one of three age categories — 2 to 4, 5 to 9, or 10 to 14.
A donation of $7 or more is suggested for each shoe box to help cover shipping and other project costs. A donation envelope is attached to the brochure or can be made online at the Samaritan's Purse Web site. Personal notes and photos may be included. If you include your name and address, the child may write back.
Foster said Spring Hill Baptist will have supplies on hand during the collection week hours.
The children's choir will be at the collection site to sing, help with the collection and make small gifts to be included in the shoe boxes from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 21.