As thousands of gift-filled shoe boxes make their way from a Solihull warehouse to the poorest parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Kat Keogh finds out more about Operation Christmas Child.
It’s what every child dreams of. Piles of Christmas presents stretching as far as the eye can see, ready to be unwrapped.
But this is not a cosy scene being played out in homes across the country on Christmas morning but a warehouse on an industrial estate next to Birmingham International Airport.
The depot at the Elmdon Industrial Estate is the Midlands base for the Operation Christmas Child appeal, where hundreds of shoe boxes have been arriving every day since November.
The appeal, which was set up by charity Samaritan’s Purse in 1990, enables boxes containing toys and sweets plus essentials such as toothpaste, shampoo and warm clothing to be handed out to needy children during Christmas.
Operation Christmas Child has become one of the UK’s biggest annual charity programmes, and relies on schools, churches, businesses and individuals donating boxes and donating £2.50 towards distribution costs.
The shoe boxes are then given out to children aged between two and 14 in countries including Romania, Bosnia, Kosova and Ukraine.
A simple process, which organisers say means so much to the children who receive the boxes.
“Unlike other charities, where people make a donation which goes into a pot of money and the individual never really sees a personal outcome, this does make a real difference to a single child,” says Alistair McLean, of Operation Christmas Child.
“That is not to say that other charities do not do fantastic work but here there really is that personal connection. It is amazing when you see the expression on a child’s face when they receive something like a simple pair of gloves.”
All donations are individually checked at the charity’s processing centres across the country before being transported to children in hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters and poor neighbourhoods.
An estimated 56,000 boxes have been sent to the Solihull depot, with more than 15,000 boxes coming from Birmingham alone, which is more than double the number which were collected last year.
“It is amazing that people have been so generous this year,” says depot co-ordinator Suzanne Walker.
“We had expected that, with the economic downturn, people might not have been able to give as much but to double the number of shoe boxes from last year is fantastic and we want to say a big thank you to the people of the West Midlands.”
Sixty volunteers have been working in shifts handling all the boxes and everything from the warehouse rental to the heating has been provided free in an effort to send the boxes off on time.
“People who volunteer are thrilled to be doing something that helps,” Suzanne added. “They come from so many places, from retired people to young mums and
people who come in after finishing their day job. It is real teamwork, as each part of the job links in with someone else’s job.”
Each box is individually checked to ensure the contents are suitable for the particular age range but Suzanne is keen to stress that people’s efforts are respected.
She said: “When you look at the boxes you can really see how much love goes into them.
“Lots of people have put in little messages and pictures, and they have taken great care when deciding what to send. They really think about the child who will be receiving the gift.”
The shoe box appeal is only one part of Samaritan’s Purse’s work with the communities across Eastern and Central Europe, and Africa, where they also support projects aimed at giving disadvantaged children a better chance in life.
“The vast majority of boxes are handed out by the indigenous population,” says Mr McLean. “We can make a difference to a child’s life by donating these boxes but it is the people who live there who carry on the work.”
One such scheme aided by the charity is a rehabilitation unit, set up by a former paediatrician, where abandoned children are taken in and given a place to stay. “Some had been sold by the families for as little as a bottle of vodka,” Mr McLean said. “The centre gets by on a few hundred dollars funding from the state, so they rely on organisations like us to keep going to give these children a good grounding in society.”
* Since 1990 Operation Christmas Child has delivered more than 60 million shoe boxes to children worldwide.
* The appeal sent 1.3 million boxes to children in hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters and impoverished neighbourhoods.
* The Birmingham Post will be filing news stories and blogging at birminghampost.net/blogs when it travels with the charity when it delivers boxes from the Solihull depot to Crimea next month