EDWARDS — For some poverty-stricken children, it might be the only present they’ve ever opened.
Filled with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and notes of encouragement, the shoebox is proof that someone cares for them, even if that someone is faceless and lives on the other side of the world.
Operation Christmas Child is the world’s largest Christmas project of its kind. The Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational Christian organization, uses gift-filled shoeboxes to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to children in need around the world.
“Just receiving something like this gives them hope that someone actually cares about what happens to them,” said Edwards resident Rece Chilton, who has been participating in the program since her daughter, Sarah, was in kindergarten. Sarah is now a junior at Vail Christian High School.
“If you’re out there and have lost everything, like the kids in the Philippines, that’s a huge thing,” Chilton said. “Just thinking that there’s someone in the world that really cares makes so much difference in their world.”
For a few weeks now, Eagle County residents have been gathering items for the shoeboxes and packing them up.
This week (today through Nov. 25), is national collection week. Calvary Chapel, located at Vail Christian High School in Edwards, is the local collection and relay center. A semi-trailer will pick up the boxes in Edwards, some of which are coming here from Steamboat Springs and Basalt, and take them to Denver. From there, the locally collected boxes will go to Mexico, Togo and Guyana this year. Operation Christmas Child hopes to distribute 9.8 million boxes around the world this year.
Lisa Chaple, the local collection center coordinator, is hoping to top 625 boxes, which is how many were collected in Eagle County last year.
“I’d love to get 1,000 boxes, but I’m shooting for 800,” Chaple said. “People are really involved this year, and I know we’ll do more than we did last year.”
It’s the third year Chaple is coordinating the effort.
“I love helping people, and Christmas is my favorite time of year, so it just made sense,” said Chaple, who has been on missions trips to Mexico and Africa. “I was so excited to take it over.”
Speaking of excitement, for Chilton, shopping and filling the boxes is just as much fun for her and her daughter as it likely is for the child receiving the gift, she said.
“It’s a total holiday tradition for us,” Chilton said. “We have a blast going out and picking out what we think they’ll like.”
During this past year, Chilton paid the $7 shipping fee online for each of the three boxes they donated, so she was able to track where the boxes went: Mexico.
“I always try to write the kids a little note in each box, and tell them where we’re from,” she said.
Over at Keller Williams Realty, the employees have put together boxes to donate for the last three years. The first year, in 2011, they donated between 30 and 35 boxes, said Michael Routh, who heads up the project with fellow realtor, Laura Sellards.
This past year and this year, the group expects to donate around 100 boxes, but Routh is already thinking about next year.
“The goal next year is to increase it exponentially and get clients involved and maybe challenge an office in Denver to see who can raise more, to not only increase our number, but cause them to do it, too,” Routh said. “Not too belittle 100 — that’s a truckload, literally.”
Next week, the realtors will gather together for a party to pack the boxes and label them, before dropping them off at Calvary Chapel.
“We make sure that each box has a toy — a doll or a truck,” Routh said. “And we did some research and found that some of the items that make the biggest difference are things we take for granted, so we put a bar of soap in each box, and a toothbrush and toothpaste, a wash cloth. We typically put in pencils, crayons, coloring books. This year we have kazoos on the list, and little combs. It’s fun, the whole office gets behind it.”
Local dentist Steven Vito donated all of the toothbrushes for the boxes both last year and this year, Routh said. Donated items are especially appreciated as that means the group can fill more boxes.
“We figure it costs anywhere from $15 to $20 a box, including the $7 to fund the shipping and handling,” Routh said. “When we did 100 boxes, we figure it’s somewhere around $2,100 raised.”
But, according to local residents who have made donating boxes part of their holiday tradition, the cost is secondary and more than worth it.
“It’s such a special thing we can do for someone else,” Chilton said. “We are so blessed here. It’s amazing what we have, so we need to share. “