Christmas is five months and a few thousand shoeboxes away. That’s the way things look to the core team of local volunteers who pack those boxes with treats for children in some of the poorest places on Earth.

Eastside Baptist took on local management of the Samaritan’s Purse “Operation Christmas Child” project about a decade ago and continues to serve as the central organizing force. Each week, a core team meets to pack more boxes as donations come in from Eastside church members, the public at large, businesses, civic groups and other places of worship that chip in to make sure there are plenty of small stuffed animals, toys, socks, and other standard fillings to go around.

This year, the group is aiming to send off 3,000 boxes — that’ll be a record if the community can pull it off. In a year of extreme challenges for storm-struck Jackson County, team leader Patti Gambill says local residents continue to step up and help. Some even pack their own shoebox-sized plastic containers and bring those in ready to go.

Donations of shoebox items are still being taken, as well as monetary contributions that help with shipping – that costs $9 a box – and the purchase of the standard 50-cent shoeboxes made available by Samaritan’s Purse, as well as the purchase of items to go in the boxes when needed. That shopping spree happens in November, after the team counts up and sees what else is needed and, with an eye on the year to come, at after-holiday sales where deep discounts can be realized.

The team started working on the 2019 boxes almost as soon as the 2018 boxes were sent. The year-round effort brings rewards to the spirits of those involved, Gambill said, and is viewed as a fun and valued opportunity to help.

The boxes are packed with a few hygiene items, socks, school supplies and a few toys, with a small stuffed animal or other “huggable” treasure always in the mix. The donated items must first be sorted by age group – the programs serves youngsters aged 2 to 14. Big bins line the hallways of the packing headquarters year-round as the assembly line of volunteers makes their choices for each box.

The team of workers and givers is diverse; they include teenagers, young adults, middle-aged as well as seniors, like Diana Grant, who hasn’t missed a weekly packing day in the past three years.

In November, just before Thanksgiving, the local Operation Christmas Child team will have a cake fundraiser, where they’ll make and sell red velvet cakes for $30 each.

Meanwhile, the collection and packing of toys and other goodies continues. The packers meet on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those wishing to help in any way can call the church at 526-2004 to find out more.

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