By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
BROADALBIN -- Volunteers at the Sacandaga Bible Conference will be busy sorting, stacking and packing thousands of shoe boxes throughout the course of this week, each filled with basic necessities and small surprises destined for children across the globe.
It is National Collection Week for Operation Christmas Child, a program founded in 1993 as an extension of the international relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
Since its founding, Operation Christmas Child has collected more than 94 million gift-filled boxes and delivered them to children in more than 130 countries. This year, the organization hopes to add another 9 million boxes to its records and celebrate its 100 millionth delivery.
As the main collection center for this immediate area, the Sacandaga Bible Conference serves as a drop-off for several "relay centers," mainly community churches participating in the program.
Individuals and groups can donate the gift-filled boxes at the nearest relay center. On Monday, they will be delivered to Broadalbin and prepared for shipment to Boone, N.C., the national operations center for the program.
Sacandaga Bible Conference Director Phyllis Keeler has been coordinating the regional collection center for 13 years.
Last year, the Sacandaga Bible Conference coordinated the collection of 7,900 boxes from throughout the area. This year, Keeler said they hope to exceed 8,000.
"We had 1,023 come in today," Keeler said on Wednesday. "So, we're hoping that each day it picks up momentum more and more."
"There's many volunteers that come in and help. All of those gift boxes have to be organized and placed in cartons, so there's a lot of activity getting all those packed and then lifted up into the big tractor trailer," she added. "It's exciting, it really is. We have children and senior citizens and it's just a wonderful time of opportunity to serve the needy people."
In Amsterdam, First Baptist Church Coordinator Liz Knapik is preparing to be inundated with shoe boxes.
As an area relay center, the church collects the boxes from both individuals and groups, including area women's groups and the Girl Scouts.
Knapik said they have also reached out to other area churches and are accepting the shoe boxes for any area organization willing to participate.
"We have approximately 40 boxes right now and I know we're expecting another 20 or 30 from another local church this weekend," Knapik said.
Knapik said the First Baptist Church has served as a relay center for Operation Christmas Child for approximately four years, now.
Last year, the church collected 268 boxes, 78 from their congregation alone, and delivered them to Sacandaga Bible Conference.
Operation Christmas Child's Northeast Regional Media Relations Representative Grace Johnston said the organization has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, enabling it to touch millions of lives.
Johnston said through little more than word of mouth, the organization has blossomed to include thousands of collection sites throughout the country during National Collection Week.
"It's just amazing how contagious it is. You wouldn't think putting together such a simple box would really bring you joy," said Johnstown. "For me, personally, I feel like I almost know this little kid, like I'm packing this box for this child."
"It's a very simple project and really the heart of it is to bless children overseas that usually have nothing," she added. "Many times the gift that these kids receive are the first gift that they've ever received."
The goal, Johnston said, is that each child in need will receive at least one box in their lifetime.
Creating a shoe box for donation, Johnstown said, is simple: Choose which gender you'd prefer to gear the items for and an age group (2 to 4, 5 to 9 or 10 to 14.) The items, Johnston said, can vary widely.
"We encourage people to pack the boxes with little toys, hygiene items, school supplies, even socks or flip flops," said Johnston. "It can be a simple shoe box, but often we will encourage people to use small plastic bins because the boxes often go to places where the children have to carry water, so not only does it come to them filled with gifts, but it's something they can use."
Johnston said even the simplest items can bring joy to a child lacking the most basic necessities.
"I've heard stories of children growing up in an orphanage and not even having toothpaste to brush their teeth. They're overjoyed with toothpaste in their box," said Johnston. "They're such simple things that we take for granted, but kids around the world, it's amazing how their hearts and their lives are blessed by this."
Gerry and Priscilla Cutler, of Ganesvoort, are two of the lucky few who have actually had to opportunity to witness the joy the shoe boxes bring first hand.
The couple have been involved with Operation Christmas Child for 10 years and currently serve as area coordinators, covering Fulton, Montgomery, Hamilton, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.
Three years ago, they traveled to Ecuador to take part in the actual distribution of more than 1,000 shoe boxes to local children.
"That was truly incredible," said Priscilla.
Among the groups of children the boxes were given to, Priscilla said, were those who actually lived and worked with their families in and around a dump, where returnables can be collected and exchanged for money to support the family.
"We gave out the boxes to the children. It was really wonderful," said Cutler. "It is beautiful, just the faces and the reactions. Just like all children."
Cutler suggested several items for inclusion in a shoe box for those who wish to donate.
"It's a wonderful ministry and it's very simple. All you do is pack a shoe box with things that you know a child would: like school supplies, toiletry items or toys," Cutler said. "We often suggest maybe a soft animal, because many times the children don't having anything soft."
During her trip, Cutler said she was often just as thrilled by the parent's reactions as she was the child's.
"These children are so wonderful, and the parents, again, just like all parents, are just so grateful that their children have gotten something," said Cutler. "It makes you feel really just very blessed to be able to go there and to be part of something that is very simple to do, but has such profound effect on not only the children but the parents and the whole community."
The Sacandaga Bible Conference will be collecting shoe boxes through Monday. They can be dropped off any time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday and between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Additional relay sites in the area include the First Baptist Church on Guy Park Avenue in Amsterdam and the Community Bible Church on Silk Avenue in Fort Plain.