100 million reasons to celebrate
by Sherrie Norris
That was the international message of hope as thousands of people from around the world converged in Orlando, Fla., April 6 to help Boone-based Samaritan's Purse's Operation Christmas Child celebrate a milestone.
Nearly 10,000 dignitaries, musicians, children, administrators and volunteers gathered at the Orange County Convention Center and celebrated the ministry's 100 millionth shoe box, which was filled and distributed during Operation Christmas Child's 2012 gift-giving season.
"It's something God has done and we want to give him the glory," said Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse.
Graham began the world's largest Christmas-gift project in 1993 as a way to help children with basic needs and to offer a message about Jesus Christ. Volunteers fill shoe boxes and Operation Christmas Child delivers them annually throughout the world.
About 500 OCC volunteers from 102 countries and about 1,500 from across the United States also attended the celebration in Orlando.
In that group was Mary Damron, one of the first volunteers for OCC in the United States.
Damron helped launch the shoe-box project when she collected boxes in West Virginia and drove them to Boone. She later accompanied OCC to Bosnia where she helped distribute shoe-box gifts.
Helping with the celebration in Orlando were well-known entertainers, including three-time Grammy Award winner Michael W. Smith, Grammy nominee Matthew West, country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, along with Dennis Agajanian, the Tommy Coomes Band and the African Children's Choir, composed of children from Uganda who attend an English school and perform internationally.
Actress Shari Rigby served as master of ceremonies for the celebration.
In addition to celebrating a job well done, the message throughout the event was that OCC is also a job well begun.
Those involved with the event, including OCC vice president Jim Harrelson, gave credit to the Lord's faithfulness through the years for the project's success.
During the week before Saturday's celebration, Harrelson said, OCC leaders and key volunteers from around the world met in conference "to fellowship, plan, pray, celebrate and look at the challenge that lays ahead as we contemplate the next 100 million shoe boxes."
"Hundreds of millions of children have yet to hear the word and to respond," but to reach those children, he said, more shoe-box gifts than ever before will be needed "and more people will need to be praying."
"The opportunity to bring together people from all over the world to celebrate the milestone -- and to truly praise God for what he has done to allow Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child to touch and impact children around the world -- was a great privilege," he said. "It was like being a part of heaven -- of what it's going to look like when all tongues and tribes of every nation are gathered together, as referred to in the Bible. It was amazing."
Also amazing is the High Country's connection to the international effort, Harrelson said.
"Right here from Boone, N.C., the world is being impacted, one shoe box at a time," he said.
Also at the celebration were Livia Satterfield and Ted Foreman, who grew up in Romania and Russia, respectively, and were each given "a spark of hope in their orphaned hearts," when they received a shoe-box gift.
Livia said her "biggest priority" -- hair clips -- was included in her box. Ted's favorite item was a washcloth, his own towel that he did not have to share with other children in his orphanage.
Livia and Ted both ultimately came to faith in Jesus Christ after a journey that started when they heard the Gospel alongside their shoe box. They are now filling shoe boxes for other children around the world.
As it has been for two decades, the impact of those shoe boxes in 2012 was significant.
Shoe boxes were sent to 105 countries last year, and Harrelson said OCC has had the privilege of sending boxes to more than 154 countries and territories during the past 20 years.
Ross Rhoads, whose Calvary Chapel in Charlotte was one of the first churches in the United States to be so-privileged by packing shoe-box gifts during the mission's start-up, offered a prayer, celebrating the Lord's "hand of blessing upon Operation Christmas Child in collecting 100 million shoe boxes."
Skaggs reflected on his travels with OCC, including his 1995 trip to war-torn Bosnia during which he distributed shoe-box gifts.
The singer shared memories of seeing Russian-made cargo planes being loaded with the boxes and thinking how wonderful it was that they were being used to bring blessings instead of bombs.
"Knowing that those planes were made to deliver missiles against the U.S and meant for destruction, and knowing how the hand of God was being used to take gifts and the love of Jesus Christ around the world -- that's a God I can serve, right there," Skaggs said.
"One hundred million shoe boxes have been collected, but it comes down to the one - the one child receiving one gift, receiving one opportunity to come to know Jesus," said Randy Riddle, OCC director.
"We've got to have faith like a child if we're willing to believe and trust in God," Graham said. "God wants to heal your heart."
"Every shoe box is an opportunity for the Lord Jesus Christ to wrap his arms around a child," he said.
Samaritan's Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, Samaritan's Purse has helped victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine with the purpose of sharing God's love through His Son, Jesus Christ. For more information, visit http://www.samaritanspurse.org