The 2016 numbers tell the story: 12 million shoe boxes filled with Christmas gifts will be given to poor children in more than 100 countries. And 2.5 million of those boxes are being prepared in Charlotte, by 30,000 volunteers from all over the United States.
On Tuesday, many of those volunteers gathered in a warehouse in south Charlotte to help Franklin Graham celebrate the 24th year of “Operation Christmas Child,” a project of Samaritan’s Purse, his international Christian charity based in Boone.
Amy Emery and daughters Courtney, 21, and Clara, 17, drove 10 hours from Norris City, Ill., to volunteer at the Charlotte Processing Center off Nations Ford Road. They also brought 196 shoe boxes – all filled with small gifts – from members of their Baptist church.
“Each box goes to a little kid who may not have much of anything,” said Emery, who has been volunteering for five years. “Everybody needs a little joy in their life.”
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The shoe boxes shipped from Charlotte this year will go to children in nine countries: Aruba, Burundi, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Togo, Georgia, Ghana and Paraguay.
Graham told reporters Tuesday he intends to deliver some boxes himself, to Haiti and “northern Iraq if we can do it.”
What’s inside the boxes?
Terry Gold, a pastor and Christian musician from Rock Hill, opened one up and pulled out stuffed animals, toothbrushes, towels, and soap. “They’re telling us that soap is better than candy,” Gold said. “But we’ve had everything. Even soccer balls with their own air pumps.”
On stage at the Tuesday celebration, Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, spoke about the thrill of getting one of the shoe boxes when he was a child growing up in Kiev, a city in Ukraine. Inside, he said, he found items most children in the United States take for granted. Like toothbrushes.
“I would no longer have to share a toothbrush with my siblings,” said Prokhnevskiy, one of nine kids in a family that lived off potatoes and rice. “And my own soap – with a different shape, creamy, scented. And the candy, which let me escape reality for just a moment.”
The most memorable – and confusing – gift: Dental floss, which he took to be some kind of minty candy.
When Graham took the stage, he traced the beginnings of Operation Christmas Child. It was launched in 1993 after he got a call from man in England looking for a partner to help him bring cheer to children struggling with poverty and war.
Graham agreed to join him, but then forgot. When the Brit called back in December, asking how many shoe boxes Graham had filled with gifts, the North Carolina evangelist said he put in an emergency call to Ross Rhoads, then pastor of Calvary Church in south Charlotte.
By the next Sunday, Graham reported, Calvary had collected more than 11,000 shoe boxes bulging with toys and other items.
“We realized that God was in it,” Graham said. “There was something about this.”
Since then, Samaritan’s Purse and the churches it partners with around the globe have collected and delivered more than 135 million gift-filled shoe boxes in more than 150 countries.
McCrory ‘great governor’
Last year, Gov. Pat McCrory appeared with Graham during the annual Operation Christmas Child celebration in Charlotte.
This year’s celebration came a day after Republican McCrory, a longtime friend of the Graham family, conceded that he had lost his re-election bid to Democrat Roy Cooper.
Some analysts have suggested McCrory’s embrace of House Bill 2 was a factor in his defeat. The controversial law, which Graham also strongly supported, nullified a Charlotte city ordinance that would have extended civil rights protections to LGBTQ individuals. HB2 caused a boycott of North Carolina by some businesses, sports leagues and entertainers.
HB2, as it was also called, mandated that transgender persons had to use the bathroom conforming with the gender on their birth certificate.
Asked Tuesday about McCrory’s loss, Graham praised the governor:
“He was a great governor, a good man. He stood up for what was right. And, of course, he was attacked by groups from outside this state that poured (in) millions of dollars trying to defeat him because of his stand to protect our women and children. So I’m very grateful for Pat McCrory.”