PENN YAN — Five-year-old Nathan Mayton recently had a great time packing shoeboxes full of gifts for suffering children throughout the world.
“Nathan had a blast,” his mother, Linda Mayton, said of her son’s first experience with Operation Christmas Child, an international program that provides these gift-filled shoeboxes for poor or sick children in dozens of counties.
Of course, Nathan’s ecstatic mood may have had something to do with the sugary Christmas cookies he ate, the cheerful Christmas music that was playing and the abundance of other children who also were packing shoeboxes Nov. 4 at St. Michael Parish in Penn Yan. Nonetheless, his mother said the event taught him an important lesson: Serving others is important, and it can even be fun.
“I want to include him in helping people outside of our family,” said Mayton, who belongs to St. Michael.
Mayton and her husband, Mark, had taken Nathan to the store several days before the event, and he had fun picking out small toys he thought another boy his age would like to receive. On Nov. 4, he and the other children enjoyed digging through a pile of toys and deciding whether they should go in shoeboxes for boys or for girls, Mayton said.
“They had fun thinking about how some other kid might be happy with these toys they’re holding in their hands,” she said.
Operation Christmas Child was started in 1993 by Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational outreach organization based in North Carolina. Since then volunteers in the United States and 10 other nations have filled millions of shoeboxes with small toys, school supplies, personal-hygiene items, hard candy and other small gifts, said Jane Mosser, coordinator of the Nov. 4 event at St. Michael, which is one of six churches in Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community.
Toy guns and any toys suggestive of war or violence cannot be placed in the boxes. Workers from Samaritan’s Purse inspect and add age-appropriate catechetical materials to each box, Mosser said, noting that the organization delivered shoeboxes to more than 7.6 million children in more than 90 countries last year.
“(The program) specifically targets children who are sick, poor or are suffering anywhere in the world. It’s a way to bring the joy of Christmas to them,” Mosser said. “It’s also a way to try to evangelize. The shoeboxes are delivered where Christianity is not common.”
Nearly 50 people participated in the Nov. 4 event, which had been open to the general public as well as to parishioners and families in the Catholic community’s faith-formation program. Volunteers packed and wrapped 48 shoeboxes that morning, and many more shoeboxes were dropped off at the parish later that week, Mosser said.
Mosser and a few other volunteers then brought the shoeboxes to a drop-off center in Rushville. From there, the shoeboxes were to be shipped to one of six processing centers in the United States, Mosser said. After the boxes leave the processing centers, Samaritan’s Purse workers use any method of transportation available to deliver them to their recipients, she said.
“They travel by plane, ship, truck, dog sled, camel and probably some other methods to faraway places and into the hands of beautiful children,” Mosser said.
Although she has packed and wrapped shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child for the past several years, 16-year-old Michaela Swarthout said she is still amazed at the variety of methods employed to transport the boxes.
“It’s crazy, and it doesn’t matter how they get there. It’s just (important) … that they get there,” said Michaela, who belongs to St. Michael.
Receiving these shoeboxes is probably an amazing experience, she said, because many of the young recipients have never been given Christmas presents before.
Participating in Operation Christmas Child is a good learning experience for young people, who may never have realized that there are people elsewhere in the world who are struggling and don’t have things many American children take for granted, Mosser said.
“I’m moved by the whole thing because our children have many opportunities to play and enjoy themselves and don’t have worries, and so many children in the world do have such challenging lives,” she said.
Putting together these boxes allows youngsters and adults alike to reach out to people they’ve never met and let those people know that they are loved and cared for, Mosser added.
“We … agreed to pray each day from now until Christmas for the child who will receive our own shoebox,” Mosser said. “The children who attended the program agreed that they themselves would be very excited to receive one of the shoeboxes, and hoped that the children who do receive them will be happy with what is inside and will know that someone somewhere else in the world loves them.”
After watching a video about the program, Mayton said she was moved when she saw the faces of mothers whose children received shoeboxes. These mothers had never been able to give Christmas gifts to their children, and the gratitude she saw on their faces convinced Mayton that her family needs to make an annual tradition out of participating in Operation Christmas Child.
“It feels good, and I know it’s the right thing to do,” she said.