Alicia Colabito opens the red and green shoebox on the table in front of her and pulls out a small teddy bear. She examines the bear, along with the pencil crayons, toothbrushes and stickers packed neatly in the box. Having passed her inspection, she hands the shoebox to her friend, Carey Wong, who seals the box and adds it to the growing stack moving along a conveyor belt.

Colabito and Wong continued this process for two hours as they inspect and pack shoeboxes on a volunteer trip with the University of Guelph-Humber at processing centre in Woodstock, Ont.

The third year early childhood studies students participated in a Canadian initiative called Operation Christmas Child, which is affiliated with the Evangelist organization Samaritan’s Purse.

The charity delivers shoeboxes packed with “toys, hygiene products and school supplies” to children in developing countries says Frank King, the news media relations manager for Samaritan’s Purse.

Frank says the initiative began in the early 1990s when a couple in Wales shipped shoeboxes filled with toys and gifts to impoverished children in Bosnia during its civil war. He explains that as the program began to grow the couple became overwhelmed and offered their charity to Samaritan’s Purse.

Since the organization took over operations in 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered a total of 157 million shoeboxes worldwide says King.

Aren Sammy    an alumni of the early childhood studies program    has participated in the initiative with her church since she was a child.

This is a very personal initiative Sammy says, as an individual packs a shoebox with items they picked for a child.

“You put your heart and soul into that box,” adds Sammy.

Sammy, who manages the early childhood studies resource centre, brought the Operation Christmas Child initiative to the university for the first time this year and was overwhelmed by the student engagement.

The centre began the initiative in the middle of October and ran until Nov. 22. Since then, the school donated over 150 boxes to the initiative Sammy says.

Tikko sits on shoeboxes in the Woodstock warehouse

Tikko, the mascot for the early childhood program, sits on shoeboxes in the Woodstock, Ont. warehouse. (Amanda Naccarato/GH360)

Wong and Colabito were among the Guelph-Humber students who packed shoeboxes at the university.

Colabito explains they picked up their shoeboxes the first day the initiative started on campus and began packing their boxes with dollar store items such as toothbrushes, warm socks and crayons.

“It was a great experience,” Colabito says, “We are giving them supplies they may not have access to.”

Along with donating boxes, Colabito and Wong joined Aren Sammy in volunteering at the Operation Christmas Child processing centre.

Wong, who regularly volunteers in her community, says it was important for her to get involved in a more hands-on way.

The team worked a two-hour volunteer shift in the Woodstock warehouse rotating several roles, including pre-inspections for monetary donations, inspecting that the items in the box can pass customs and sealing the shoeboxes for shipping.

Students Carey Wong and Alicia Colabito along side Aren Sammy at the inspecting table in the warehouse of Operation Christmas Child.

Carey Wong, Alicia Colabito and Aren Sammy at the inspecting table
in the warehouse. (Amanda Naccarato)

Like Wong and Colabito, most volunteers work at an inspection table, explains Bev Witting, the volunteer coordinator for Operation Christmas Child.

The southern Ontario processing location can see anywhere from 10,000-12,000 volunteers per Christmas season Witting says.

The impact of these shoeboxes are quite substantial Witting adds.

“It’s very moving being at a distribution and seeing the look on the children’s faces when they open their boxes,” says Witting, recalling the distribution trips she has been on, including Costa Rica and Senegal, West Africa.

Three young girls open their shoeboxes in El Salvador.

Children in El Salvador open their shoebox. (Samaritan’s Purse)

Kendra Shields, an Operation Christmas Child processing supervisor, says she was concerned about the change of location as this is the first year the Ontario warehouse has moved to Woodstock.

Shields added that the Ontario warehouse has been in operation for 23 years, but it is usually in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. Despite the move, there was still a great turn out.

In fact, Witting estimated about 9,000 volunteers this year.

According to Colabito, the team got through a lot of boxes. It was very rewarding she says as the students felt that they had made a real difference.

“I felt really happy knowing that these boxes are going to children who don’t have these things or don’t receive a Christmas present,” says Wong on the car ride back to Guelph-Humber, “It made me happy.”