The Story of Operation Christmas Child

How did an idea about a shoebox turn into a worldwide gift-giving sensation?

Group Photo

Franklin Graham shares how since 1993, boys and girls all over the world have experienced God's love through the power of simple shoe box gifts from Operation Christmas Child, a worldwide gift-giving sensation made possible by Samaritan's Purse.

One hundred twenty-four million shoebox gifts are astonishing. 

But thinking back to the beginning, I can recall the first shoebox packed, which was just as astonishing. It reminds me how unique each gift really is.

The Very First Operation Christmas Child Shoebox

When Ross Rhoads agreed to help us collect shoeboxes for kids the first year, it was a new experience for us all. We'd never packed a shoebox for a child.

With a short window of time to make it happen, I called our director of communications at the time, Paula Woodring, to ask if she'd go shopping. She was accustomed to my spontaneous requests, so she switched gears and headed to the store. A day or two later she presented the first shoebox, carefully packed, sure to bring a smile to a girl and sure to communicate the care and love wrapped up in such a special package.

In the meantime, Carol Rhoads was busy packing the first shoebox in Charlotte, N.C., to show to the congregation of Calvary Church. Carol is one of those organized ladies who carefully keeps the right shoes in the right shoebox, so she struggled with which pair of shoes to make "homeless." Pulling a box from the shelf and removing the shoes, she and Ross went to Walmart and filled it with items that would fit inside.

One box for a boy and one box for a girl was all we knew about designating shoeboxes for kids. After the first distribution, we learned that there was much more to this idea.

When the Unexpected Happens

It isn't so easy giving shoebox gifts away. But Kenney Isaacs began working with Ross's staff to prepare the boxes for shipment and get them out of the church.

Trucking companies expressed dismay that we hadn't given them notice of the large numbers of packages needing transport. They had no idea that this hadn't been planned. Sadly, on our part, it hadn't been expected. But God answered our prayers by providing shoeboxes for kids, not by human standards, but from the "riches of heaven." He took the one box that had been presented to the people and multiplied it.

Though we were accustomed to the logistics of sending aid to foreign countries, we were surprised to learn that these boxes had to be inspected before receiving clearance by U.S. customs.

Inspect 12,000 Little Boxes?

I was grateful that Kenney happened to be home instead of halfway around the world as he usually was. He'd given leadership to our disaster relief efforts, and there wasn't anyone better than him to bring structure to chaos in the making. Ross invited Kenney to speak to the congregation one Sunday morning.

"Will you help us?" Kenney asked. "You see, these shoeboxes need to be moved out of your church, but before we can ship them to Bosnia, they have to be inspected and prepared for transport—today!"

Operation Christmas Child, Samaritan's Purse

That Sunday afternoon, 300 volunteers from the church showed up in the gymnasium: men, women, teenagers, boys, girls, moms, dads, and grandparents. The excitement was thrilling; the sounds of joy filled the house of God.

Heavenly Joy Around Shoeboxes

Imagine the scene.

No preparation had been made. No flyers had been sent out. No time on anyone's calendar had been blocked to do this work. When people got ready for church that morning, they had no idea what lay in store. But God knew. God was there in the hearts of the people. Joy—heavenly joy—filled that place. Everyone who came on the spur of the moment rolled up their sleeves and set their feet in motion.

But the gym couldn't hold the boxes and the people.

Kenney scrambled to organize processing lines and gave on-the-spot training on how to inspect a box of toys. We hadn't thought to instruct people to refrain from packing squirt guns, camouflage clothing, and anything else that resembled war. We didn't think about chocolate melting or liquids spilling out. If boxes were found to contain certain food items, customs would reject the entire box. Kenney assessed the pros and the cons and did all that he could think to do, and the people responded.

Prayers Take Flight

"This idea of a little shoebox gift is huge," Kenney said when he called me from Charlotte, N.C. "Franklin, the energy and excitement from Ross's church is something extraordinary. I've never seen anything like this—people are fired up!"

Hearts were ablaze with the love of God that prompted generosity. This was a memorable day—and we learned as we moved forward. Willingness to serve God leads to receiving His guidance every step of the way. I couldn't help but think of Isaiah 48:17: "I am Yahweh your God ... who leads you in the way you should go."

Operation Christmas Child, Samaritan's Purse

Ross's wonderful church staff and congregation worked tirelessly inspecting the boxes and sealing them with Samaritan's Purse tape. The boxes were stacked on pallets and wrapped in heavy-duty plastic. It was comical to see lopsided pallets because of the variance in shoebox sizes. But the smiles on the faces were "right side up." Happy faces were in abundance.

An Urgent Shoebox Dilemma

With the 17,000 shoeboxes our Canadian office collected from schools in Calgary, combined with ours, we had a dilemma and had to act with urgency. How would we ship 28,000 boxes halfway around the world in just a few days?

We contacted USAir asking if they'd consider transporting these gifts. At the time, we were hopeful we might collect 1,200 shoebox gifts. The airline had agreed to transport six

pallets. But when we learned that we actually had nearly 12,000 shoebox gifts from the U.S. alone, we knew it was a long shot to persuade USAir to amend their offer. One zero makes a big difference!

It was going to take an answer to prayer to make this journey a reality. We prayed that God would open the hearts of the powers that be and grant us favor with more cargo space (at their expense—not ours).

A conference call was made to USAir. When their customer service representative learned that our number had increased from 1,200 to nearly 12,000, she gulped when we asked if the airline would give us more air freight. As the discussion progressed, prayer was being answered. The call concluded with her response, "We'll give you the entire load!" Talk about an answer to prayer. Talk about energizing us and others.

News outlets had given Samaritan's Purse a tremendous amount of coverage about the relief work we were already doing in Bosnia. Because of worldwide attention to Bosnia at the time, the media attended our press conferences in Charlotte and Calgary, which heightened public awareness of the project. The coverage sparked enthusiasm that invigorated people to "come and help us."

Not until the boxes took flight did we realize the impact that one simple gift could carry the gospel abroad in a simple cardboard box.

One Final Thought on Operation Christmas Child

The best way I know to share my feelings about Operation Christmas Child is to wrap it in this thought:

When one hundred million prayers are lifted to heaven for one hundred million boxes that will be given to one hundred million souls, might Jesus lean up on the edge of His throne and say, I have used these gifts given in My name to open the children's hearts, and My offer remains to all who come seeking, for I will answer.

This was a celebration for what God had done through Operation Christmas Child. But He's not done yet. The greatest journey has many more miles to travel and many more souls to reach—and we'll continue telling a story of simple gifts.

Excerpted from the book Operation Christmas Child (B&H).

Franklin Graham has devoted his life to meeting the needs of people around the world and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The eldest son of Billy and Ruth Bell Graham, Franklin serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as well as Samaritan's Purse, the parent organization for Operation Christmas Child.