Shoeboxes filled with gifts, toys, candies and hygiene items will be packed and shipped by volunteers this weekend working with Operation Christmas Child. Last year, schools, churches and organizations throughout Connecticut gathered 26,000 shoeboxes for the annual charity drive and this year they’re looking to collect even more.
The goal this year is 8.5 million boxes globally, according to a spokesperson for Samaritan's Purse, the organization that sponsors Operation Christmas Child. Working toward this goal are Laurie Tornatore, of Monroe, and Jeanette Bonano, of Brookfield, parishioners at the First Assembly of God Church in Brookfield.
During a recent interview, the two women stood in a large room knee-deep in toys, candy and 500 stuffed animals, almost all of which had been purchased by Tornatore and her husband over the course of the last year.
Tornatore and Bonano are preparing for the Packing Party at the Brookfield church on Saturday. The Christmas boxes will be packed by members of the community, local youth groups and volunteers from this church and others.
Tornatore, who is in charge of community relations for the project, said she purchases all of these items because “we have a heart for these children. They live in desperate conditions, suffer from famine, disease and poverty,” she said, adding that many of the care packages are going to kids in war-torn areas.
Boxes are sent to Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and more.
Each box includes a toy, candy and a stuffed animal because, as Tornatore explained, she wanted each child to have “something soft to hold onto.”
People who donate boxes can send pictures of themselves and share information, according to Bonano.
“If you put your name and address in the box, sometimes they write back,” she said, holding up a sheet that children can fill out with personal information such as favorite colors and activities.
“This is the first year we're trying to get other people involved,” Tornatore said. “On Saturday, we are expecting to pack 700 boxes. Girl Scouts and Youth Groups will be coming to separate items and pack the boxes.”
Small but precious miracles seem to occur when the boxes are received, according to the two women.
“One little girl had always wanted hair barrettes, and she had never had them, then she received them in her Christmas box. Another girl in Eastern Europe had seen a Barbie doll on TV and she received a Barbie,” Bonano said.
“The shoeboxes touch children in a small but important way,” explained Tornatore. “It's amazing the effect the items have on the children. Someone sent a picture from a calendar and a child hung it on a school wall. That picture stayed there for seven years.”
The passion shared by the two women from the Brookfield Church was matched by the enthusiasm of Pastor Steven Kim in Naugatuck at the United Methodist Church, which is also participating in the drive.
“I was one of those children who received a shoebox when I was a child, though it was probably from another organization,” he said. “I was in elementary school in the 60s and 70s, less than 20 years after the Korean War ended. At that time, the country was very poor. Not much resources and especially in the schools. We had no fancy pencils. The ones we had were so coarse they split when we sharpened them.”
“We were so excited with the fancy pencils and the notebooks that arrived from the U.S. I still have vivid memories of pencils that sharpened,” he laughed. “I have a real feeling about this. I know that the boxes bring the children a sense of hope. There's a connection.”
Last year, the Naugatuck church collected 76 boxes from the congregation and 154 boxes from the surrounding areas, according to Ethel Grant, who works in the church thrift shop and also helps coordinate the project.
“One woman, by herself, drops off 60 shoeboxes,” Grant said. “During the week of November 14, our church collects the boxes and brings them up to Watertown, and we fill up the trucks. Any individual items that people bring in, the youth group packs into the boxes.”
The Christmas spirit and the spirit of giving not only unite the local community but the worldwide community of humanity.
“People have become more community minded, and not just in the churches, but also in the world,” Grant said. “We are all in this together."
To provide a box, specify on the top of the box whether it is for a boy or a girl. School items, small toys, hygiene items (but no liquids), toothbrushes and toothpaste are accepted, as well as combs, bar soap, face cloths, T-shirts, socks, sunglasses, hair clips and flashlights.
(Do not include used or damaged items or war related items or military figures. No food or chocolate or out of date candy, though wrapped hard candy is fine. No medications vitamins or breakable items including glass or hard plastic.)
To drop off items or filled shoeboxes:
Naugatuck United Methodist Church, 208 Meadow Street, Naugatuck, 203-723-2428 Nov. 14 through Nov. 20th, 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (Thurs 9-3).
The First Assembly of God Church, 133 Junction Road, Brookfield, 203-775-5191, is also a drop off site, Nov. 14 through Nov. 20th, 11 am until 4 pm.