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Children's gift box drive delivers Christmas hope

Nov. 10, 2005

By JIM RAY, reporter

Being a kid isn't easy when your stomach's empty or a gun's pointed your way.

The magic of childhood -- not to mention Santa Claus and Christmas -- don't always survive attacks from poverty, war and natural disaster, particularly when all three team up.

Students can help blunt the pain of lost childhood by participating in Operation Christmas Child, an initiative that distributes millions of gift-filled shoeboxes to suffering children worldwide. The weeklong collection begins Wednesday.

Courtesy photo
Operation Christmas Child participants wrap presents for children last year. This year's collection begins Wednesday.

"You have an opportunity to give them back some of the innocence that was lost," said Crystal Woodman-Miller, national spokeswoman for the effort that will transport gifts to 90 countries this year.

Woodman-Miller attended Columbine High School in 1999 when it was attacked by student gunmen. She hid under a table in the library, where most of the violence took place.

"I can relate with a lot of the hopelessness," she said.

Her experience coping with trauma and loss helped her empathize with victims in Beslan, Russia, where terrorists in 2004 held more than 1,000 people hostage, killing 338. Woodman-Miller hand-delivered shoeboxes to schoolchildren there.

"People go through Columbine experiences every day," she said. "Mine lasted seven minutes, but there are people who experience this day in and day out."

Marti Dietrick, the campaign's Central Texas coordinator, also gave a grim description of life for some children.

"I just don't think we have a concept of how these people live," she said.

Dietrick handed out shoeboxes in orphanages in Ecuador, where she said a "vacant lot between cinder block houses" was referred to as a park.

Woodman-Miller said the operation is about a message: "There's more to this life."

"These boxes return to (children) a sense that someone loves and cares for them, that they are not forgotten," said Steve Melson, the Texas and Louisiana region director.

Operation volunteers said they only address essential needs. A child's basic right is to be loved, said Jey Martin, Norman senior and a member of Baylor's steering committee for the operation.

These children don't feel entitled to anything, Dietrick said. Her own children believe it's "their right to receive these things during Christmas," she said. Elsewhere, children "don't have a sense that they have value, that they deserve food or gifts" or even to live.

"They're nothing like kids in the states," Dietrick said. She saw many children patiently awaiting their gift and witnessed their ecstatic responses to receiving a box.

In spite of the value children attribute to the gift, putting it together is easy, said Janalee Shadburn, University Ministry's seminary intern and Baylor's operation coordinator.

Martin agreed, pointing out that a small effort will "affect someone's life in the long term." She said one more box means another child won't go without.

Woodman-Miller also stressed the individual impact. "What's beautiful is that every box you make personally is put into the hands of a child," she said.

This makes the operation unique among humanitarian efforts, volunteers said.

"It's not just sending money to an aid organization," Dietrick said.

She and her children have received one letter from Kosovo and three from African countries.

Dietrick includes a return address with each box she sends, along with a picture and letter. She said the shoeboxes prove their significance in story after story.

One child encountered by Sarah Cooper, a Southlake freshman who volunteered in Trinidad and Tobago, still had her box from the previous year and displayed it with delight to Cooper. It was perfectly preserved with all the items intact.

Woodman-Miller said an African boy, amazed by his gift, spent a year working to earn enough money to send a thank-you letter to its sender.

Baylor students contributed about a thousand boxes last year. Shadburn hopes that number will rise, she said.

Drop-boxes will appear in locations all over campus, she said, including the Bill Daniel Student Center, Bobo Baptist Student Center, residence halls, the Stacy Riddle Forum and the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center.

Although there is no content standard for the shoeboxes, volunteers suggested hard candy, toys, school supplies and hygiene items.

Operation Christmas Child is part of Samaritan's Purse, a humanitarian organization. Its Web site,, provides details of the effort and instructions for assembling a shoebox.