Central Florida (September 9, 2022) – Imagine being so poor or isolated that you had never seen a crayon. Or that receiving a tooth brush now means you don’t have to share a single tooth brush between yourself and your siblings.

For some of the children on the receiving end around the world, the scenario is exactly what they experience daily.

Launching this season’s Operation Christmas Child through the nonprofit organization Samaritan’s Purse, children and families across Central Florida are heading to local churches to pick up the signature red and green shoeboxes that for some children across the globe will one of the only gifts they’ve ever received.

Sharing the story of receiving one such shoebox as a young girl in Ukraine, Mariya told the story of never having seen a box of crayons before. Unsure, she thought it was candy, unwrapping and eating it before discovering it’s true use.

As a young child with a passion for art, her prayer was answered with the shoebox containing the art supplies.

Also inside the box, a photo of the anonymous family who donated the gifts.

“I don’t know if I would be the artist that I am today if I had not received those crayons,” she said. “God has many other ways of using other things to accomplish His will and He used the shoebox to show me He’s able to do exceedingly more than I ever imagined.”

Growing up to become an art teacher, Mariya has never forgotten the impact of the shoebox on her life and now serves as an ambassador for the program, creating a full circle moment for families stateside who pack the boxes to connect with an actual recipient.

“This is very meaningful because in a way I get to say thank you to people that are packing the shoeboxes, because I never had a chance to say thank you to the people who packed mine since I can’t find them,” said Mariya. “I always get so encouraged and inspired when I see people excited about the shoeboxes.”

“The gifts are still there, whenever they play with them or use those school supplies, they’re constantly reminded of what they felt when they received that shoebox, and in a way God also works in time. Instant gratification, instant excitement? Yes. But God continues showing them that He loves them, He cares for them and it’s just that constant reminder in those tangible items that God’s giving us something that we can actually feel, touch and see,” she said.

Palm Coast residents Jose and Barbara Alcaraz serve as leaders in the region working closely with Operation Christmas Child Regional Area Coordinator Beverly Gardener and helped with this season’s deployment of boxes.

“Operation Christmas Child is near and dear to my heart as it is the simplest, most tangible way to share God’s love. We have many ministry partners in Flagler County who work alongside Samaritan’s Purse to provide these gospel opportunities,” said Barbara Alcaraz.

“Last year in Flagler we sent close to 2,500 shoeboxes and this year we are hoping to impact the lives of over 3,000 children thanks to the generosity of the people of Flagler.”

With a regional goal of nearly 18,000 shoeboxes for the this year, the team worked over the weekend at the River City Church in DeBary on Friday, with a multi-church meeting at the First Baptist Church of DeLand on Saturday to distribute the boxes waiting to be filled by churches, civic organizations and individuals.

“We have four teams and each of the teams have their own goals. Florida/Puerto Rico, we are hoping for 600,000 shoeboxes,” shared Gardener. “We are really, really pushing toward our goal. It is super exciting.”

There’s even an option for the reluctant shopper.

“You can build them like this or you can build them online,” she said.

Enjoying the experience of building the boxes as a family, the Rothwells attended the DeBary event on Friday evening where they heard Mariya’s inspiring story.

As a member of the American Heritage Girls Troop 0317, mother of four, Sarah Rothwell said her family has already been participating in Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade.

“We have 16 girls in our group and we have not set a goal but probably each girl will do a box,” said Rothwell of the troop’s efforts.

After listening to Mariya’s story, each troop member in attendance picked up her box, even more determined to make a difference.

“I think it’s really important because it’s kind of abstract when you make the box as far as seeing who actually opens it,” said Rothwell.

“If you go to a birthday party a child usually gets to see the person receive the gift but to actually hear from somebody who gets it makes it even more real for them.”

Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes are currently available at Palm Coast Ford and the First Baptist Church of Palm Coast, and will be available at the Palm Coast Chick-fil-A in October.

National Collection Week is November 14-21 and the First Baptist Church in Palm Coast is the regional drop off location.

To build a box online or make a donation, visit www.samaritanspurse.org.