Special to the Pella Chronicle

Ten-year-old Maria from Mexico received a shoebox gift from Amy Lukens and wrote of her appreciation.

As a child, packing shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Child was an annual event for Amy Lukens.

With her grandmother’s guidance, Lukens and her siblings would carefully select gifts and pray for the children who would receive them. Then, the family would ship the boxes off, confident the gifts would reach the right child, but never knowing for sure who that child was.

That all changed in 2002 when Lukens received a letter at her home in Quincy, Ill. It was from the family who received a gift box she sent that Christmas. Since then, Lukens has had the satisfaction of hearing from 20 other recipients.

The Samaritan’s Purse project, Operation Christmas Child, collects shoebox gifts—filled with fun toys, school supplies and hygiene items—and delivers them to children in need around the world to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way. For many of these children, the gift-filled shoebox is the first gift they have ever received.

Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has collected and delivered more than 168 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries and territories. Thousands of those boxes are donated by Quincy-area residents.

In 2016, Lukens transferred to the Pella branch of Klingner & Associates and kept packing shoeboxes. She now serves as an Area Coordinator for the Christmas project. Lukens says she has many favorite gifts to send to children, but she has the most fun with accessories.

“I love sunglasses, hats, hair things and jewelry,” she said.

She also always includes a letter to the child, which she addresses as “My New Friend.”

“I tell a little about myself, like my job and what I like to do for fun. I close by telling the child that the reason I’m sending their box is because Jesus loves them and that He is the Greatest Gift of all. I attach my email address and suggest finding me on Facebook. I include a picture of myself as well,” said Lukens. “I know how important a letter is to the children who receive their shoebox because a few of them have told me it was their favorite thing. Kids are curious. They want to know where their box came from and it’s very special to be able to look at a photo and know that the person in it loves them.”

The children or families who write back to Lukens always thank her for their gifts.

“Most of my messages have come through Facebook messenger, so they often start with a photo of a child holding my shoebox,” said Lukens. “Parents always tell me how thankful they are that their child was able to receive a gift. I remember one mom in Mexico who told me they want to work, but can’t find jobs. They couldn’t afford to give their little 3-year old son gifts and we’re so happy for him. Another mother of a shoebox recipient from Togo told me she prays for me.”

In May, Lukens was able to see firsthand the value of shoebox gifts for children in need. She traveled to Namibia with Operation Christmas Child to distribute gifts.

“I loved watching the children open their shoeboxes,” said Lukens. “Squeals of excitement and happy chatter will fill the room as children who had never received a gift before opened their shoeboxes, but my favorite part of the trip was watching the local Ministry Partners. You could see the love in their eyes and hear the urgency in their voice when they talked about the children in their communities. They want to reach the children, and for many, Operation Christmas Child is an answer to their prayers.”

Individuals, churches and groups are invited to participate in Operation Christmas Child by filling an empty shoebox with gifts. Include a personal letter and email or Facebook contact and the child who receives the gift may write back. Lukens says she never knows which box recipient will write her, but it’s always exciting to hear from them. She believes technology gets part of the credit.

“I don’t really know why I’ve received so many responses from kids and their families in recent years,” she said. “I think part of it is that technology is more wide spread and easier to access in recent years than ever before. I always send a recognizable photo and keep my Facebook profile set to a recognizable photo of me as well. I sign my letters with my name as it appears on Facebook, and I check my message requests regularly. Last year surprised me. I sent 111 shoeboxes and heard back from 11. That’s 10 percent and pretty crazy awesome.”

During National Collection Week (Nov. 18 – 25, 2019), Samaritan’s Purse will collect the gift-filled shoeboxes at nearly 5,000 drop-off locations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

In Pella, gifts may be dropped off at Liberty Evangelical Free Church, 684 198th Ave. Drop-off centers are also open in Ottumwa, Moravia and Bloomfield. Learn how to pack a shoebox, view gift suggestions, get a Follow Your Box label and find the nearest drop-off location at samaritanspurse.org/occ.

Sandi Terford is a volunteer with Operation Christmas Child.

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