An annual shoebox packing effort is changing the lives of less fortunate children in countries around the world. 

In the lead-up to the holiday season, Florida Keys community members stuff boxes with toys, personal care items and crafts for Operation Christmas Child, run by Samaritan’s Purse International Relief. For the past 15 years, First Baptist Church of Key Largo, located at MM 99, has served as the spot for donors to drop off their shoe boxes. By the end of the collection effort, a storage container is full of boxes for shipment to children in need.

Recently, the church recognized the milestone with the former co-coordinators of Operation Christmas Child in south Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, Marie and Paul Brischke. Cindy Smith, church relations coordinator, has taken part in OCC for more than 10 years. In the last 15 years, she said, a total of 34,186 shoeboxes have passed through the church’s doors. 

“It’s because of the Brischkes’ passion that my husband, Eric, and I were so involved for a while,” Smith said. “It’s a great cause that impacts so many people.”

From children to seniors, people pack gifts in a shoe box each year for children in need around the world. For parents, the project serves as a teaching moment for their kids about giving. Churches and groups of all sizes collect boxes from their communities, and some churches also serve as drop-off locations for shoeboxes the third week of November every year.

Thousands of volunteers serve annually inspecting and preparing shoeboxes for international shipping. Every hour work stops for a few minutes to pray for the children who will receive the boxes. Long before shoe boxes arrive in more than 100 countries, volunteer National Leadership Teams train pastors and community leaders who want to share the message of the Gospel and bless children.

Marie Brischke remembers when Paul and her packed about 100 shoes boxes inside a Ford Ranger for delivery to Island Christian School, where five caravans would ship all boxes up to the furthest drop-off location south at a Fort Lauderdale church. Fast forward to today, and drop-off locations span further south from Homestead to the Lower Keys.

“It’s a project everyone can do,” Brischke said. “You can do it with your neighbors or others in the church. There’s a lot of opportunity, and I hope and prayer is that it would continue to get stronger and more and more people would din the pleasure in giving shoebox gifts.”

Between the sharing of toys and other goodies, Smith said, an opened shoebox benefits seven people on average. And with the more than 34,000 shoeboxes packed in the Keys and shipped to other countries, that equates more than 239,000 lives positively affected. 

With packing underway, Smith said the local OCC team is hoping to send 5,000 shoeboxes from three drop-off locations in the Keys and one in Florida City to other countries. Last year, some 9.1 million boxes were collected and sent around the world. This year, OCC is hoping to send off 9.8 million boxes. 

“I know we can do our part by filling a semi with 5,000 boxes. I don’t have a doubt, Smith said. 

Collection of shoe boxes will go from Nov. 15 through Nov. 26. In addition to First Baptist Church of Key Largo, Marathon Church of God, 800 74th Street, and First Baptist Church of Big Pine Key, 300 Key Deer Blvd., will serve as drop-off locations for those packing shoeboxes. 

Visit samaritanspurse.org and click on Operation Christmas Child underneath the “What We Do” tab to learn more. 

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.