Shoeboxes from the heart
SEBRING - When Margaret Sager and her church family pack Christmas gift shoeboxes for impoverished kids abroad, they always make sure to include a cup. "Some of these kids don't have a cup," she explained, so when they go to get rice or any other food, they have to lay out the palms of their hands. "It's little things that we don't even think about," Sager added. Like a pencil or a wash cloth.Some of the children don't have a pencil even if their families have money to pay for their school, or share a pencil with siblings, Sager said. When there is only one pencil in the family to go around, the kids have to take turns going to school, so Sager makes sure they include a pencil in every shoe box they send. A worldwide project that tries to bring smiles to the faces of children in developing countries for Christmas and provide them with some daily necessities others take for granted has been steadily growing in Highlands County. Last year, Bible Fellowship Church in Sebring collected about 4,700 shoeboxes with gifts as part of Operation Christmas Child, managed by the non-profit group Samaritan's Purse, and this year's collection locally may surpass last year's, Sager added. The Sebring church, on 3750 Hammock Road, is the final drop-off site for Highlands County, among others. Sager functions as the collections center supervisor. Several area churches, civic groups like the 4-H Club and just individual benefactors drop off their filled shoeboxes to the church, which then sends the cartons over to Atlanta to be shipped. This week, the church is taking in the boxes until Monday, and First Baptist Church in Avon Park is also open for drop-off for the first time, said the Avon Park coordinator Lucy Loveless. The First Presbyterian Church in Lake Placid collects the boxes in south Highlands County. They are taking in the collections during the day until Monday. Loveless has been involved with the project for many years and remembers a time when she and her husband would take all the boxes First Baptist members put together to Orlando, which was the closest drop-off point. By opening the Avon Park church, they have made it more convenient for donor groups in north Highlands County or south Polk County, she said. "We are delighted to have a closer place," she said, "especially for further-off places. I think this is a wonderful program." Sager has been involved with the project in some form or the other for the last 10 years. It's become a family tradition and kicks off the holiday season, not just for herself, but her four kids, who have all become expert helpers. Tuesday, David Sager, 14, and Gavin Glisson, 11, were helping to either stuff boxes or assemble some stock boxes. The family buys essential items but also purchases things on clearance all around the year. To find out what a kid might like, Margaret Sager just depends on her own kids for inspiration - and they could be dress-up boas or flip flops. While the community can drop off packed shoe boxes, they are also welcome to just drop off items to be put in the boxes, Sager said. The boxes are either for boys or girls, and are packed according to age groups. However, the church will accept any kind of donations from groups, of pencils or bars of soaps, school supplies or any other things, to either go into a box or to be sent to the group to be eventually distributed. Donors can also pay for a $7 shipping if they like, and those who do that can see where their box is going. It's a question Gavin and David often ask themselves. "I wonder where they are going to go," Gavin often asks. This year, David has made a pair of cord bracelets, which can either be worn around the wrists or unraveled to be used as cords when needed. He said it is satisfying to make a difference in the lives of other kids. It's a sentiment his mother hopes her children will take away and which propelled her into the program. "I think it's because it's a great way to show God's love to the children and minister to others," she said. It also allows her children to see how blessed they are and share their blessing with others, she said. Those who want a shoebox can ask Bealls Outlet store in Sebring, said the group's community relations person Betty Rochelle. Rochelle said a yard sale on the Sebring Circle helped raise $100 for shipping and several "packing parties" have been held throughout the country. Some businesses also have put out literature and shoeboxes on their counters for shoppers to buy and fill. Next year, Rochelle hopes to set up a table outside a business so she can help to get the word out and marshal more donors. "I think it's really great," she said. Along with school supplies, each child also gets the gospel in his or her language, she added.