PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) — Lakewood Baptist Church in Phenix City was full of activity Monday afternoon as volunteers brought in and organized shoeboxes full of gifts for their first day of Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse. By the end of the day, the church had received 2,053 boxes filled with hygiene items, school supplies, toys and other items to be sent to children in need around the world. Last year on the first collection day, the church received 2,355 boxes.

Linda Keown is the coordinator for the program at Lakewood Baptist Church, while Cathy Driver is the area coordinator for the Chattahoochee Valley southeast region.

Keown explained the process for collecting boxes, saying that vehicles containing shoeboxes pull up to the church’s portico before volunteers unload the boxes onto carts. They then verify how many boxes there are and bring them into the building. The information is sent to Samaritan’s Purse. The shoeboxes are brought into a workroom where they are packed into larger boxes.

Other churches as well as individuals can bring their filled shoeboxes to the church. Keown said one woman had just dropped off 150 boxes she had filled on her own.

“So we’re taking in shoeboxes from as far away as Opelika, Columbus, Hurtsboro, Hatchechubbee,” she said.

These colorful boxes are from a Presbyterian church in Opelika.

Volunteers try to fit at least 15 shoeboxes into each carton. Filled cartons will eventually be put on an 18-wheeler truck, which will take them to Atlanta to be processed and prepared to go overseas.

Keown said that six collection centers – two in LaGrange, one in Pine Mountain, one in Ellerslie, Georgia, one in Columbus, and one in Valley, Alabama – will bring their filled cartons to Lakewood Baptist Church.

“And we’ll have four 28-foot trailers out here, and they will all go to Atlanta at the same time,” Keown said.

Keown told the story of how her church became a major drop-off center.

“I was in Boone, the center of Samaritan’s Purse,” she said. “The main office of Samaritan’s Purse is in Boone, North Carolina. And we were there on vacation. I went by to drop off three little boxes, and they just got me so pumped and excited that I came back here and got our church involved. And then, very soon after, we became a drop-off. But to be a drop-off, you have to be approved through the ministry. There’s interviews and references and all kinds of things that have to be done to become a drop-off.”

“We love to have new drop-offs because when a new church becomes a drop-off, the ministry grows because that’s one more like, little light in the community,” Driver said.

Keown said Lakewood Baptist Church has been participating in Operation Christmas Child since 1994.

Above, drop-off volunteer Gail Head, left, and area coordinator for the Chattahoochee Valley southeast region Cathy Driver, right, man the front table at the collection center.

The mission of Operation Christmas Child is both humanitarian and religious in nature. Samaritan’s Purse says its purpose is to show children God’s love “in a tangible way.”

“So a shoebox has so many things in it to meet the physical needs of a child like a bar of soap, wash rag, toothbrush,” Keown said. “But we pack that box so that when they get it, the gospel of Jesus Christ, a booklet that tells the story of Jesus in their language is laid on top of it. And so, they’re able to not only get all the things that they would want to play with and that they need, but they would also get the gospel. That’s the whole point.”

Driver said that after receiving their shoeboxes, children are invited to participate in a discipleship course called “The Greatest Journey.”

“And because of those classes, hundreds and hundreds of new churches are getting started every year,” she said.

At the end of the discipleship classes, each child is presented with a Bible in their language.

Keown said that when shoeboxes are sent to a country, they are distributed carefully so as not to go to the same locations twice in a short time span.

“So the chance of a child getting more than one shoe box in their lifetime is nil … It’s going to take more than a decade to get back around,” she said.

Keown said the shoeboxes are taken to places so remote that they have to be delivered on the backs of animals.

Driver said a goal in the Chattahoochee Valley branch of Operation Christmas Child is to get 23,716 filled shoeboxes. Worldwide, she said the goal is 11 million.

Lakewood Baptist Church will be open to collect shoeboxes this week on Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will also be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon and on Sunday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. This upcoming Monday, Nov. 21, it will accept boxes from 9 a.m. to noon.

Click here for information on other collection locations or how to pack a shoebox.