TEXARKANA, Texas -- A host of area churches, including two in Texarkana, are preparing to spread holiday cheer and plant the seeds of discipleship through Operation Christmas Child.
An annual project of Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child has collected and delivered shoebox gifts of toys hygience items and school supplies to children worldwide for nearly three decades.
"In 2022, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough shoeboxes to reach another 11 million children. This season, there's still time for individuals, families, and groups to transform empty shoeboxes into fun gifts," Samaritan's Purse said in a news release.
This week is National Collection Week, when Operation Christmas Child makes a push to collect gifts. From now until Monday, local donations can be dropped off at Cross View Baptist Church, 3268 N. Farm to Market Road 2148, and Trinity Baptist Church, 3115 Trinity Blvd.
Carolyn Sparkman, Texarkana area coordinator for the project, is based at Cross View Baptist. The church serves as a central point for area collections, and the congregation has already prepared 2,000 boxes of their own, including about 800 shipped in August and September to places where it is difficult to minister openly.
"We pack shoeboxes all year round," Sparkman said Monday.
Sparkman, who began volunteering with Operation Christmas Child in 2000, expects to have filled five 18-wheelers with donations by Monday.
"We have young people coming every day to help us," Sparkman said as she and her crew of 17 other volunteers worked with Red Lick Independent School District students, who will assist again on Wednesday.
The students help to unload boxes from cars, count them, pack them into shipping crates and load them for transport.
College Hill Middle School students are scheduled to work today and Thursday; Hooks Middle students on Friday; Cross View youth on Saturday; and youth from Lake Country Baptist Church, south of Texarkana, on Sunday.
"On the last day, we'll have some Boy Scouts helping," Sparkman said.
Area collections are sent to Coppell, Texas, one of eight processing centers in the U.S., Sparkman said.
"My husband and I and 12 other people from church will go to Coppell the week after Thanksgiving to process," she said.
The process includes ensuring each box is adequately filled.
"We will put things in if they are skimpy. These gifts are the only things the children may get," said Sparkman, whose congregation at Cross View aims to put a pair of flip-flops in each box they pack.
Last year, Sparkman's area -- which includes five counties in Northeast Texas, Miller County in Arkansas and McCurtain in Oklahoma -- collected nearly 35,000 boxes. In all, 10.4 million shoeboxes were produced in 2021 in the U.S. and eight other countries for children in more than 100 countries.
"The need is much greater than the supply," Sparkman said.
One local group that has answered the call is the Golden Circle Class at First Baptist Church, Moores Lane. Sparkman said the Sunday school class of women in their 80s and 90s have put together about 13,000 shoeboxes so far this year.
"They have their own building where they pack shoeboxes year round," Sparkman said.
The women hold sales and bazaars at 1901 College Drive to raise funds for Operation Christmas Child. A sale is planned for Thursday, Sparkman said.
"It looks like a high-scale department store," she said.
The actual shoebox distribution is something to behold, said Sparkman, who joined about 80 others in delivering gifts to thousands of children in Paraguay in May 2016.
Along with a gift box, each child is hand-delivered literature about Jesus Christ and treated to a "child-friendly" gospel presentation that features clowns and pantomime.
"It is so much fun. They are so excited," Sparkman said.
After the presentation, the children are invited to participate in a 12-lesson discipleship program that ends with a graduation ceremony.
"They become little missionaries themselves and reach out to other children in their area," said Sparkman, adding that the children's efforts often lead to the formation of new churches.
Sparkman said she was reminded of the importance of Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child at the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. One news report that touched her heart was about a distribution of shoeboxes to children taking refuge in a church.
"They were opening those boxes, and it brought tears to my eyes. I thought of how they had to flee their homes with nothing but their clothes on their backs," Sparkman said. "It made me so happy."
Sparkman said anyone interested in donating to Operation Christmas Child can find a full list of dropoff sites and times online at samaritanspurse.org. Donors are asked to go provide a $10 donation per box to help cover the costs of shipping and producing the ministry literature.
"No one is paid," Sparkman said about the 9,000 global volunteers with Operation Christmas Child.
Only Samaritan's Purse administration, including president Franklin Graham, are on the payroll.
A step-by-step guide on packing a shoebox is online, where there is another option to donate.
"Donors can pack a shoebox online for $25," Sparkman said, adding that people can choose what items to include.
Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has collected and delivered more than 198 million gift-filled shoeboxes to children in more than 170 countries and territories. The gifts are distributed starting around Christmas and well into spring, Sparkman said.
"This year, Operation Christmas Child will collect its 200 millionth shoebox," the press release states.
For information, call Carolyn Sparkman at 903-277-0124 or her husband and logistics coordinator Billy Sparkman at 903-908-5585.
"He's the one where the buck stops," Sparkman said. "If the boxes are not packed correctly, he's the one who gets the blame."