Westside Baptist Church will again open its doors as a four-county regional collection center/hub for an annual project to send shoeboxes filled with gifts to children in impoverished countries.
Many Sumter churches participate in Operation Christmas Child through Westside. Jill Harvell, a member of Westside and the collection center's coordinator, distributes the empty shoeboxes to churches that promote the annual gift campaign. Those individual churches also generally collect filled shoeboxes from their members and attendees and deliver them to Westside's hub, according to Harvell.
Westside's regional collection center opens Monday for its grand kickoff ceremony at 9 a.m. Churches will be delivering gift shoeboxes to Westside for one full week, through Monday, Nov. 20, she said.
Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization and the organizer of Operation Christmas Child, takes boxes to its processing center in Boone, North Carolina.
From there, they will be distributed to children in more than 160 countries and territories, according to the agency.
Shoeboxes should be filled with new fun toys, such as dolls or soccer balls, school supplies and hygiene items, including toothbrushes and other necessities. The organization advises to not include candy, toothpaste, food items, liquids, lotions and used or damaged items.
Harvell said if participants haven't picked up a shoebox from a church yet, she still has a limited supply at Westside. People can pick up free, empty boxes during the collection center's hours of operation starting Monday. They should be dropped off by Nov. 20 at 11 a.m. Westside Baptist Church is at 554 Pinewood Road.
The other counties in the Santee area have their own drop-off locations before gift boxes are sent to Westside. Those include Emmanuel Baptist Church in Manning, Horse Branch Freewill Baptist Church in Turbeville, First Baptist Church in Bishopville and First Baptist Church in Kingstree. Residents of those counties can also pick up empty shoeboxes at those churches, Harvell said.
Last year, the goal was to collect 10,000 shoeboxes in the total service area. Harvell said they collected a little more than 12,000.
This year's goal is 13,000, according to Harvell.
"Last year, we blew the goal away, and we were very excited," Harvell said. "Hopefully, we can blow the goal out of the water this year, also."
Raised in Sumter, Harvell and her husband, Greg, served on the mission field in the Philippines for 25 years. She said she knows from personal experience that there are never enough shoeboxes to distribute to all the children in an area.
She said mission teams will drive into small, poor areas in countries to deliver the gifts. Residents have to get tickets ahead of time, and there are never enough tickets for all the kids.
"It's sad," Harvell said. "On one hand, it's a joyous time in the room, but then you look outside and see other kids looking in the window. It's hard. It's a tremendous ministry, but never enough. You are always having to turn down a child."
Since there are never enough to distribute, she challenges Sumterites and others to give more this year.
"I would just challenge people to skip a meal — or not eat out one meal — and go to the Dollar Tree and put stuff in a box," Harvell said. "It makes a difference not only in the lives of those children, but also a lot of times in the lives of their family."
Along with each shoebox, individuals are encouraged to include a $9 donation, cash or check, to cover shipping and other ministry costs, according to Harvell. Checks should be made out to Samaritan's Purse. Now, individuals can also track where their box ends up by making that $9 donation online at www.samaritanspurse.org.
After making the payment online, a donor will receive a special label with a barcode, which can be printed. The label should be attached to the shoebox.
After the box has been delivered to its destination, a donor will be notified by email.
For addresses and hours of operation, visit www.samaritanspurse.org.
Locally, individuals can also call Westside Baptist at (803) 775-3484.