Samaritan's Purse's Operation Christmas Child will deliver its 200 millionth shoebox filled with toys this season to a child in Ukraine after nearly three decades of partnering with churches to deliver Christmas gifts and the Gospel to over 170 countries.
The Christian missionary program, which partners with churches throughout the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and South Korea to deliver shoeboxes filled with toys, school supplies and hygiene items for children in countries suffering from war, disease, poverty and disaster, expects to deliver the milestone gift-filled shoebox shortly after Christmas to Ukraine.
Since the organization's founding by evangelist Franklin Graham in 1993, more than 198 million children in over 170 countries and territories have received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. Last year, the program collected around 10 million shoeboxes in the U.S. and about a million from its affiliate groups.
In December, the 200 millionth shoebox will be packed and hand-delivered to a Ukrainian child impacted by war by former Ukrainian shoebox recipient Elizabeth Groff.
Groff, now 28 and living in Texas, once received a shoebox at an orphanage in eastern Ukraine when she was 11. Even after being adopted by an American family and attending Virginia Tech University, Groff still remembers the yellow yo-yo inside.
"It may seem small, but it is powerful when delivered with a message of love and hope! It changed my life," Groff said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. "Eighteen years ago, a shoebox gift opened my heart to God's Word and now I have the opportunity to personally demonstrate God's love in a tangible way to a Ukrainian child. We serve a faithful God! Being able to pack and deliver this special shoebox gift will be a highlight of my Christmas season!"
Edward Graham, the vice president of operations at Samaritan's Purse, son of Franklin Graham, and grandson of Billy Graham, told The Christian Post that Samaritan's Purse has served in Ukraine since 1996.
Since the Russian invasion began in February, the Evangelical aid charity has operated food and medication efforts in the war-torn country. The 3,200-church network the organization has been distributing food through was formed through Operation Christmas Child.
"We distribute over 11 million shoeboxes. The church network has been there for a long time," Graham said.
Operation Christmas Child has volunteers and staff teach a presentation on the Gospel to church partners that is then shared in the children's native language with each delivery.
Operation Christmas Child began when Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and president of Samaritan's Purse, was asked to give presents to children in need during the Bosnian War.
"We collected about 11,000 shoeboxes that first year, and this year we are preparing to collect our 200 millionth shoebox," Graham said in a statement. "We couldn't do this project without the churches and the hundreds of thousands of incredible volunteers who are involved across the country and around the world."
Edward Graham told CP that over 4,600 church partners are assisting with the collection of shoeboxes.
"So say a family packs five shoeboxes, well, they go to one of these church drop-offs that's collecting them," he said. "And from there, they'll take them to our distribution centers."
Once the boxes reach the distribution center, volunteers inspect them to ensure there are no perishable food items or violent toys, such as play guns, as most of the boxes are going to war-torn areas.
"So we want things like dolls, balls, jump ropes, crayons, coloring books, those kind of things to go into the shoe box," Graham said, noting that the whole process is a bit like "Santa's workshop."
The volunteers inspecting the boxes might remove inappropriate things from the boxes or add "filler items" to ones that are only half full — little toys that the program keeps on hand at the distribution centers. Once the volunteers finish processing the boxes, they load them onto shipping containers.
According to Graham, around 80,000 volunteers a year in the U.S. help process the shoeboxes for the Operation Christmas Child program. The program also has around 15,000 people run and collect the boxes, as well as recruit church partners.
"These are volunteers that we call 'high impact volunteers,'" Graham said. "These are ones that we've trained."
The charity decides which areas to deliver shoeboxes to based on need, including a need for the people there to hear the Gospel. Graham said his father has a heart for working in the Pacific, where there were many islands that have likely never heard God's word.
"So COVID has made things challenging, especially the Pacific, because those islands just shut down completely," he said. "But the staff has done an incredible job."
Graham said a few years ago, his father was visiting a Mexican village on the mountaintops that had never heard the Gospel. A disabled pastor had been ministering in the area for six years, and after leading a woman in the community to the Lord, the woman wanted the rest of her village to know Christ.
"And he's like, 'I got an idea.' So he did Operation Christmas Child Distribution there, and he led about 20 kids to Christ," Graham said. "And then the kids led their parents to Christ."
Regarding plans for Operation Christmas Child in 2023, Graham said that the plan rests with the Lord.
"The goal is to reach the realm of the Gospel, so those that have never had a chance or no way would ever hear the Gospel get to hear it in their language," he said.
"And we're going to take as many, as much as we can, as much as God entrusts to us. These are God's resources," Graham continued. "They're His gifts. And we just need to be aggressive and go to places where no one else will go."
The charity's national church collection week ended Monday, but gift-filled shoeboxes can be delivered to one of their eight processing centers through mid-December.