Operation Christmas Child
The past few months have been busy ones for Shelton resident Howard Knapp, who has been coordinating the Operation Christmas Child program in the local area.
In October, Knapp, a churchgoer at the Huntington Chapel, stood out in front of five different Walmarts, asking people to buy small gifts to fill shoeboxes that are being shipped all over the world to children living in poverty.
Knapp said he distributed 5,000 sheets of instructions to Walmart shoppers in Derby, Shelton, Stratford, Milford and West Haven, explaining what kinds of gifts to buy, including toothbrushes, combs, school supplies and “goody” items like balls, jump ropes, dolls and small trucks.
When people finished their shopping and gave him the gifts, he filled the shoeboxes loaded in his car and drove them back to the Huntington Chapel. During National Collection Week, chapel members spent an entire day unpacking the boxes and refilling them according to age and gender.
Despite the long hours and hard work, Knapp has two words to describe the experience.
“It’s fantastic,” he said, and he and other helpers watched YouTube videos of children in African villages and elsewhere opening shoeboxes they received last year.
The children’s smiles made it all worth it, they said.
Operation Christmas Child, a project of the international Christian relief and evangelism organization Samaritan’s Purse, aims to reach more than 11 million children affected by poverty, war, disease or natural disaster this holiday season, according to the organization.
Sonny DiCostanzo and his wife Joyce, churchgoers at Huntington Chapel, helped Knapp collect items at Walmart and also helped to repack the boxes.
The DiCostanzo’s also watched a video of happy children opening the shoeboxes.
“I think it’s great,” DiCostanzo said, and the success of the local project is “thanks to this man,” he said, pointing to Knapp.
Knapp serves as Care and Outreach Minister at the chapel and also chairs the Board of Deacons and teaches Sunday school.
Amanda Lornie, a Huntington chapel member, also helped collect at Walmart.
“The thought of supplying kids with things for the holiday warms my heart,” Lornie said.
Ray Reynolds and his son Ronald Reynolds, a junior at Emmett O’Brien Technical School in Ansonia, helped repack shoeboxes and affix labels.
“Ronald and I watched the video of the receiving end,” Reynolds said. “That was great. It felt good. These kids have nothing. This is like the highlight of their year. You get to give something to people who don’t have anything.”
“To us, a pack of pencils is nothing,” said Catherine Mears, who coordinates the Operation Christmas Child collection center at Calvary Evangelical Free Church in Trumbull.
But to a child in an African village, who has never received a gift, small things like pencils can be life changing.
Receiving the gifts has sometimes had lasting consequences for the children, Mears said. A boy in Rwanda received a shoebox, but had to leave his homeland during the genocide that killed his family members. When he returned to his country, he attributed his ability to forgive to receiving the shoebox and the Gospel booklet that it contained.
Knowing somebody cared during his time of hardships made all the difference, Mears said.
Knapp related a story of a once violent man who read the Bible stories in one of the shoeboxes and turned his life around. He now helps ferry shoeboxes across a canal to the children who will receive them.
“The Lord touched his heart,” Knapp said.
Reading the books in the shoeboxes leads to Bible study lessons, a discipleship program and the goal of “bringing the children into the fellowship of God,” he said.
A growing outreach
Involvement with Operation Christmas Child appears to be on the rise.
This year, Mears said the Trumbull collection center received 3,500 pre-made shoeboxes, which is significantly more than last year.
The filled boxes are put into large cartons and shipped via tractor-trailer truck to Baltimore, one of the processing centers.
“From there, they’ll make the long journey overseas, traveling by any means necessary – boat, plane, train and even elephant – until they reach the hands of children in need,” according to Operation Christmas Child.
Knapp, who has been coordinating Operation Christmas Child locally for five years, said his collection efforts netted 420 shoeboxes this year, about 100 more than last year.
In addition to the Walmart donors, he collected gifts from Huntington Chapel members, friends and Shelton residents.
“It’s a real good outreach,” he said.
Jason Mayo, who coordinates youth activities at Huntington Chapel, said the young people who helped pack shoeboxes were gratified by the work.
“It’s a joy being part of something like this,” Mayo said.