Recently, I worked a shift at a processing centre for Operation Christmas Child, having come on the invitation of a friend. My first experience had been some years ago, attending with my youngest daughter’s Grade 6 class. We arrived at a factory warehouse, signed in and waited for training and the third member of our group.
In the training room, a cheerful woman in jeans and sweater, topped by a green apron and a pointy hat, showed us the video about the shoebox program and answered questions. She pointed out the charts showing acceptable and inacceptable items for the Christmas boxes. It might have been an elves training session except that a chaplain led us in prayer before we began our shift.
Jane and I and other volunteers from churches, schools and community groups followed our trainer to the warehouse floor, past other volunteers wearing green or red hats. She introduced us to the shift supervisor, who instructed us on the tasks that needed to be done.
While we weren’t making new things out of raw materials, we were an assembly line, making sure these boxes were safe and appropriate for children around the world. Jane chose to tape already inspected boxes as they came to her, and I chose pre-inspection, looking for and handling the donation envelopes. The young women already at station 1B had boxes ready for Jane.
It felt a little like the North Pole in that cool warehouse with Christmas music playing, a cheerful atmosphere, and volunteers wearing Santa or elf hats. And Santa nowhere to be found, since it’s not his workshop after all. As we got our line moving, Peggy entered with the next group of volunteers, saw us and came to work at our station.
I took one box at a time from a large carton on my right, and opened the boxes— tied with string, held together with elastics and some taped really well. The donation envelopes and loose cash, I put into separate slots in a wooden box in front of me. I also had to open any other envelopes and check them as well. After taking personal cards, and sometimes a photo, out of the envelope, I put those items back in the shoebox with the other things, and disposed of the envelope. Next I put the shoebox on the shelf in front of me, ready for a more thorough inspection of its contents, which was Peggy’s job.
Peggy emptied each box, checked for items that could not be sent, and added fillers to some boxes. Sometimes she had to label boxes that came with no age, boy or girl designations on them. Jane was next on the line. After taping the boxes, she placed them on a conveyor belt that took the boxes away to be packed for shipping. The same job over and over, with young men constantly replenishing the emptying carton with more full cartons at my end of the line.
After breaking a fingernail, getting a box from the tightly packed carton, I called on the shift supervisor for a band-aid. She escorted me to the first aid box, and very soon I was back in production. My son-in-law would have been familiar with doing a particular task over and over since he has worked on a car assembly line, putting in windshields. He’d also be familiar with the location of the first aid centre. While our operation was not that technical, it worked well, and we kept the line moving with only a few questions of the supervisor.
While I worked, my thoughts went to the children who would receive them; I pictured a girl or boy, somewhere, delighting in the small gifts, even the elastics or strings that came with the box. The thought of these children getting the gifts I handled drew deep emotions within me and brought me near tears.
These boxes might be the only gift some children receive. Whether they live in a previous war zone or not, whether they have known some form of Santa Claus, or whether the children or their families know God does not matter; the gifts come through a Christian agency. While we are certainly not elves, we and the donors of these shoebox gifts are helping the children to know that someone cares about them. We are God’s hands in a confusing and often dangerous world.
With fifteen minutes left on our shift, we were asked to stop our work and watch a video— a verbal thank you for our contribution of time and energy. Someone reported that we had processed over 2 thousand boxes in those two hours, boxes that were ready to ship out to countries around the world. That too was mighty awesome.