DOWNTOWN — As the school year approaches, Santa Monicans can be seen stocking up on pens, paper and other supplies — and not just for themselves.
They’re picking up those tried and true staples and a plethora of small toys and treats to act as box stuffers for Operation Christmas Child. The project is an international effort by Samaritan’s Purse to send gifts to children whose lives have been disrupted by natural disasters, disease, war, terrorism, famine or poverty.
“It’s not just a gift. It is the life of a child that can be touched through something as simple as a shoebox,” San Fernando area coordinator Ruth Correa said.
Since its start in 1993, the project has sent gifts to more than 86 million children in over 130 countries. In 2010, the West Coast region alone packed 397,189 shoe boxes. In 2011, gifts will reach an estimated 8.5 million children.
In Santa Monica, and all through the nation, people are gearing up as back-to-school supply sales present a prime opportunity to stock up on box stuffers.
“Times are tough everywhere so sales are very, very important,” Correa said.
For many children in Santa Monica, school supplies are a given, but others around the world are not so fortunate.
“We have stories of children ecstatic to receive lined paper. They can’t even imagine having [lined paper]. It’s too expensive,” Correa said.
One resident who will begin stock-piling supplies is Kaitlin Lavelle, a junior at the Lighthouse Christian Academy. She helped contribute to the 50 boxes donated by the Santa Monica school last year.
“There’s a lot of things you take for granted even little things, like little toys and candies … . It’s not a privilege for [the children who receive gifts] and it means a lot to them,” Lavelle said.
The gifts, says Lavelle, include small items, such as pens, paper, notebooks, candies and little toys like a yo-yo. Each volunteer crafts and stuffs a box that has been designated an age and gender, thus allowing the gifts to be appropriate for the receiver.
However, gifts sometimes stray outside the norm, and volunteers, Correa said, can get very creative. Hand-knitted scarfs and hats are amongst the most personalized gifts that Correa has seen.
“You don’t know which country [your gift is being sent to] so the scarf could go anywhere. It could be really hot in Zimbabwe and the child will take the scarf out of the box and put [the scarf] on,” Correa said.
Children’s responses are appreciative and thankful, often leading to shows of gratitude. One girl took out each individual present and kissed them before putting them back in the box, Correa said. Some children sleep with their boxes and many leave their gifts unopened as to preserve them. These stories enforce Correa’s belief that the program succeeds in “giving joy to a child.”
As implied in the project’s name, the purpose, according to Correa, is to spread “the joy of Christmas” as Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian ministry. However, the gifts are sent to villages and neighborhoods where all children, not just Christians, are invited.
For Bart Brewer, a Santa Monica resident and father of two, Operation Christmas Child is a family event and meaningful because of that.
His wife, Julia Brewer, himself and his children shop around for gifts, and pack them along the way teaching their children “a model for giving and packing for Christmas.” Plus, he adds, it’s fun for the children to pick out presents and is a major event in their household.
Brewer believes that the project is a “cut above other organizations.”
“[Operation Christmas Child] is quietly doing the Lord’s work in tangible ways … that [are] easy for our kids to relate to,” Brewer said.
The nearest drop-off area is Calvary Chapel South Bay on 19300 Vermont Ave., in Gardena, Calif. Boxes are accepted year-round at any location, but the National Collection Week is Nov. 14-21. For more information on Operation Christmas Child, visit www.samaritanspurse.org.