Charlotte volunteers pack more than 2 million boxes for Operation Christmas Child

License plates from Missouri, Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania were among those in the jammed Charlotte warehouse parking lot full with charter buses, RVs and passenger vehicles on Friday. Many sported stickers that read “Operation Christmas Child.”

Inside the building, thousands of volunteers packed donated toys, toiletries, school supplies and notes of encouragement into shoe boxes that will be delivered to kids across more than 100 countries this Christmas.

Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, has delivered more than 113 million of these shoebox gifts to kids in at least 150 countries since it started in 1993. The boxes are a tangible way to demonstrate God’s love to needy children worldwide, officials said.

On Friday, volunteers from across the U.S. gathered at the processing center off Nations Ford Road to pack an estimated 2.4 million shoe boxes expected to leave directly from Charlotte, organizers said.

Nationwide, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough gifts to ship 10 million shoe boxes in 2014. The other major processing centers are located in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boone, Dallas, Denver, Honolulu, Minneapolis and Orange County, Calif.

Samaritan’s Purse President and CEO Franklin Graham thanked volunteers on Friday, and said more than 2 million kids enrolled in a 12-week discipleship program this year as a result of the 2013 Christmas boxes. They hope to stretch that number to 4 million this Christmas, Graham said.

“We want to raise up an army of evangelists,” he told volunteers, asking them to pray for recipient children while packing each box. “We want to raise up these young boys and girls who aren’t afraid to stand up for Jesus Christ.”

The organization particularly hopes to make a difference with refugee children in Northern Iraq, Graham said, noting some gifts will be delivered by helicopter to a mountain surrounded by Islamic State forces. Organizers said they use whatever means are necessary – boats, camels, dogsleds – for delivery worldwide.

Yuliya Shubina is one of the children, now in her 20’s, who found faith with the help of an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. Shubina told volunteers Friday that she was 9 when shoe box gifts were delivered to the orphanage her father managed in central Asia.

Living in a third-world country, Shubina and her family had very little, and she was thrilled to receive one of the extra boxes, she said. The note taped to the bottom read “Dear friend, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and like the gifts I picked out for you. I am praying for you and your family.”

Shubina held up the stuffed toy dog she received in that box, something she’s kept for nearly 13 years, even through a move to Russia, and eventually, the U.S.

Now, as a national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child, Shubina encouraged others to continue the tradition of sending kids hope, noting that giving comes full circle.