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Local teen leads effort to pack gift boxes for kids

MIDDLEBURY — It’s not even close to Thanksgiving yet, let alone Christmas, but Middlebury’s MaKayla Foster is already assembling a variety of items for a massive holiday gift packing event this Sunday, Oct. 19.
And in the truest spirit of giving, Foster does not even know who the recipients of those gifts will be. She just knows that without her help and the help of others participating in Operation Christmas Child (OCC), thousands of kids throughout the world would have no gifts to unwrap during the upcoming holidays.
“I feel that giving is so much better than receiving,” Foster, a 16-year-old junior at Middlebury Union High School, said on Tuesday. “That’s what I’ve learned, and I want to share it with other people.”
It is in that spirit that Foster will coordinate the OCC gift packing party at the Valley Bible Church in East Middlebury. From 1:30 to 5 p.m., local volunteers will place items ranging from harmonicas to dolls into shoeboxes for distribution to disadvantaged children in more than 100 countries throughout the world.
It was in 2009 that Foster got her start helping out with OCC at  Valley Bible Church. She recalled going to the store with her mom to pick out enough small gifts, hygiene products and school supplies to fit into a shoebox. It was a transformative experience for her.
“For a kid that young, usually it’s about ‘I want this, I want that,’” Foster said. “But for the first time, and at such a young age, I didn’t feel that selfish. I amazed myself. I feel that giving is so much better than receiving.”
She was so inspired that she participated in ensuing OCC events at her church, and this year was ready to take the lead.
Operation Christmas Child is an initiative of Samaritan’s Purse, “a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world,” according to the group’s website. Since 1970, Samaritan’s Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine while also sharing its Christian message.
Since the OCC’s establishment in 1993, participants in the program have packed more than 113 million shoeboxes with gifts that have been delivered to more than 150 countries and territories. Last year, OCC supporters in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, Spain and the U.K. furnished a combined total of 17.4 million filled shoeboxes. This year’s goal is 18.3 million, according to Lauren Seitz, a spokeswoman for Samaritan’s Purse.
Valley Bible Church is one of many congregations throughout the Northeast that will be conducting gift packing parties during the coming weeks. Participants are being asked to decide whether the recipient for their gift box will be a boy or girl, between the ages of 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14. The age category should be marked on the box. Each box should include a $7 donation to cover delivery costs. Organizers have designated Nov. 17-24 as the official collection week. Donors can locate the closest drop-off point for their filled shoebox by logging on to samaritanspurse.org.
Foster noted that gift donations will be gratefully accepted all the way up to collection week. Contributors are being encouraged to gather such things as dolls, toy cars, stuffed animals, kazoos, yo-yos, jump ropes, balls, toys that light up and make noise (with extra batteries), as well as pens, pencils and sharpeners, crayons, markers, notebooks, paper, solar calculators, and coloring and picture books. Non-liquid hygiene items such as toothbrushes, bar soap, combs and washcloths are also appreciated, as are T-shirts, socks, hats, sunglasses, hair clips, jewelry, watches and flashlights with extra batteries.
Donors are asked not to contribute toy guns or other items reminiscent of war, as some of the recipients live in countries ravaged by violence. Food, medications and breakable items should also not be packed.
Those who provide boxes are invited to include a photo and personal note with address. Foster has done this before, and has received three “thank-you” notes from receiving families. Two of those notes came from families in the Ukraine; another came from the mother of a two-year-old in Zimbabwe.
“The one that really melted my heart the most was from Zimbabwe,” Foster said. “There was a picture of the little girl (named Thelma) wearing some of the headbands I had given her.”
Foster plans to stick with OCC for years to come. She is hoping for a great turnout of volunteers on Oct. 19. Last year’s event at the church resulted in the packing of around 100 shoeboxes.
“Each year, my goal has increased,” she said of the shoeboxes. “(That goal) will probably keep on increasing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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