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Holiday Gift and Event Guide — The Altamont Enterprise, November 19, 2009

Altamont to the world
Christmas joy shipped in a shoebox

By Jo E. Prout

GUILDERLAND — Operation Christmas Child is collecting everything from footballs and shoes to candy and toothbrushes.

Guilderland is home to the regional office of Samaritan’s Purse, the organization that oversees Operation Christmas Child, which sends shoeboxes filled in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia to children affected by war, famine, disease, and poverty.

Ellen Siletzky, the northeast regional manager, said that the Western Avenue office serves New York and New England — a total of seven states. Siletzky and her boss, Dana Stark, the regional director, will give up to 40 presentations to church groups and civic organizations before the shoeboxes are collected through Nov. 23. She discussed the program and its distribution process recently before a small group in Coxsackie.

Operation Christmas Child is a program that evangelist Billy Graham began and that his son, Franklin, has continued. Boxes with toys, candy, shoes, clothes, and personal items are shipped overseas and distributed with Christian storybooks to children in need.

“When a disaster hits, we will be invited into a country even before our own government is,” Siletzky said. “We’re working toward every child hearing the gospel.”

Since the program began 15 years ago, nearly 69 million boxes have been given to children around the world. That number is only 3 percent of the children currently living in the world. For perspective, Siletzky said, there are 350 million children in India.

“The time is now,” she said.

The 2009 global goal is to collect and distribute eight million shoeboxes this year, she said. The northeast regional goal is to collect 265,244 boxes.

Asked by an audience member if secular organizations could be invited to help, Siletzky said that they are welcome and encouraged.

“We don’t want to ‘tone it down.’ It is a Christian organization. They can choose not to put anything Christian inside [the box],” Siletzky said. “Everybody agrees that they’d like to bless the heart of a child.”

 Siletzky shared a chart, noting that the group has 83 staff members and 4,300 year-round volunteers. She said that 50,000 people will volunteer during national collection week in November, and that 61,000 volunteers will work at processing centers to be sure the boxes sent over are safe for children and appropriately packed.

“And, we all serve one awesome God,” she said.


One processing center volunteer, Christie Allen of Coxsackie, read a letter from a distribution volunteer. The letter was about a boy who could not see or hear in his diseased body. Partway through the letter, Allen stopped reading to wipe her tears.

“I told you I was a gusher,” she joked.

The volunteer helped the boy unpack his shoebox, and the boy tossed each item onto his bed. When the box was empty, the volunteer repacked the box and unpacked it for the boy again. Each item was tossed on the bed again, but this time, each item elicited a giggle from the boy. His laughter brought more people into the room to see who was so excited.

“The joy that the simplest gifts can bring — this giggle,” Allen read.

Siletzky said that local pastors and leaders transport the boxes on foot, by bicycle, or even by elephant once they arrive in other countries. They are delivered in schools, hospitals, and prisons.

“In some prisons, mothers are allowed to have their children,” she said. “In some countries, children are put in prison, for instance, if they steal bread if they’re hungry.”

Last year, Siletzky helped distribute shoeboxes to children with HIV/AIDS, or children who were orphaned because of HIV/AIDS.

Normally, children at the distribution sites must be calmed down because they are excited, but these children were quiet and made no eye contact with anyone.

“The life has been pulled out of them. It was hard to see that,” Siletzky said. The distribution program begins with songs, balloons, and a clown, and usually the children dance around.

“These kids sat and watched,” she said. Only after the volunteers helped the children open their boxes “did they transform into children, again,” she said. “We can leave them with the gospel message that Jesus loves them.”


Siletzky looked at the small group in Coxsackie and asked how many had been to a processing center. Two raised their hands.

“Well, you people need to go!” she told the rest.

During the first week of December, 140 rooms are filled at the processing center in Charlotte, N.C., which is one of six in the country. A first shift of 70 volunteers will work the first three days, and a second shift will work the remaining three days.

Months earlier, on Aug. 3, volunteers were allowed to call to sign up and, in one day, 92 percent of all six processing centers were full.

“We have a waiting list [for volunteers], because in less than a week, it was full,” Siletzky said.

“Everybody has a different purpose,” said Nora Muller, who has volunteered twice at the North Carolina center. When she first arrived, she marveled at the scope of the operation, and how packing a shoebox, bringing it to a collection site, and taking hundreds of boxes to a distribution center could affect children worldwide.

“They had mountains of boxes. I just started crying,” Muller said. Some people fill boxes, while others sort candy, and still others check for items that could leak.

“It’s just amazing,” she said of the huge operation. “We’re the last people seeing these boxes before the kids open them.”

Last year, Siletzky said, two million boxes were processed in Charlotte. As soon as the boxes arrive, donated shipping money sent inside the boxes is immediately removed and taken to the bank before any other sorting is done, she said. Breakable items are removed, as are war-related items. Things that are not appropriate for Operation Christmas Child but that are usable and not broken or leaking are donated to other ministries, she said.

Allen, who volunteered in Charlotte last year, said that one of her jobs was to fill in the empty spaces in partly-filled boxes.

“You feel led. ‘Well, put a sweater in this box,’ ” she said. Asked how a sweater could fit in a box along with candy and toys, Allen said, “It does.” She said that one finds a way, and uses a lot of tape to close the box. She also had advice for those in the Capital Region who want to send a shoebox.

“Go after the oldest age group of boys and girls. They’re always the lowest population,” Allen said. The children are grouped in three categories, with preschoolers, school-aged children, and teens up to age 14 receiving gifts according to gender.

“It does feel like family,” Siletzky said about the processing center volunteers. “These are your brothers and sisters. Denomination does not matter in there. We’re all there to glorify God. That’s awesome to me.”

Churches, school groups, civic organizations, or Scouts who want more information on how to collect boxes can contact the office at 357-2284, Siletzky said.

“We’re constantly looking to share the vision with more people because then we can share shoeboxes with more kids around the world,” she said. “It’s a fun project, and everyone can fill a box.”

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