Community sends Christmas gifts around the world

Nov. 23—OSKALOOSA — The Mahaska County community is partnering with a local church and a group of William Penn students to bring Christmas blessings to children in every corner of the earth.

"Operation Christmas Child is one of the ministries of Samaritan's Purse, an organization that was started by Billy Graham and his family," said Jil Van Utrecht, who spearheads the project at Oskaloosa's Central Church. "It actually started over in England in the 1990s, and they were wanting to pack shoeboxes and take them over to war-torn areas like Syria, Ukraine ... and it took off, got really popular, and they said 'We need help.' So they asked them [Samaritan's Purse] and they've been involved ever since."

It's a program that allows people from places like small-town Oskaloosa to pack a Christmas gift into a shoebox just to show a child halfway across the world that they're loved. This year, the program will be sending its 200-millionth shoebox, which will be given to a girl in Ukraine.

Mahaska County has a long tradition of doing its part to participate in the giving.

"Our church [Central Church] has been the drop-off site for the Mahaska County area since 2008," Van Utrecht said. "One of the neat things that I like about this is that we have churches from all over Mahaska County to help pack, from our little churches to our big churches, and we also have families that pack them, 4-H groups, and so it's just a really good program that lets families do something together."

From Oskaloosa, the boxes will be taken first to Ottumwa, then to either Chicago or Denver for inspection before being sent across the world to their final destinations.

Central Church usually receives approximately 1,000 shoeboxes from the surrounding community each year. Since 2008, they've collected more than 10,000 shoeboxes total. All of those shoeboxes require some heavy lifting to load them up before they can be sent off.

In the past, Central Church has received help from the William Penn football team. This year, the William Penn women's soccer team volunteered their time to load shoeboxes.

Above all, Van Utrecht says, the project is a labor of love.

"When the child receives the gift, then they also get to learn about the gospel and how much Jesus loves them," she said.

The final count for this year's shoebox collection in Mahaska County was 1,239. Central Church donated 229 of them, and 17 local churches participated in the drive.

Channing Rucks can be reached at crucks@oskyherald.com.