Note: This blog post was shared with us by former Green Hills Church member Karen Parnell. It offers some good tips for items to include in your Operation Christmas Child shoebox.
Unsolicited Advice About Shoeboxes
by Katie Garrett, SIM Senegal
May 11, 2015
First, I can’t believe a year has already passed since we were part of giving shoebox gifts to the kids in our Sunday school last May! How is that possible?!
Second, let me say that I know that each of these gifts is prepared with love and given from hearts full of generosity, compassion, and a desire to share Jesus’ love. And each one is SO appreciated! No matter what is inside the box, each child (and family) is excited and blessed to receive a gift, given with no strings attached. For the local kids here, this is so unexpected, so unusual… Kids here do not get presents on Christmas or on their birthdays (if they are even aware of those days!). And most are only rarely given new things or presents at all. So to receive a box of gifts like this is such a treat.
You may or may not be aware of how Samaritan’s Purse runs this project. They partner with churches and missions who are involved in children’s ministry. So in our case, a leader of the denomination of our local church attended the Samaritan’s Purse training meeting a few months ago to learn the parameters and the process. He requested boxes for the children in our Sunday school and the request was granted. So this past Sunday we had the fun of giving each child a shoebox after church along with a booklet. The booklet is written in the form of a comic book, and it tells the story (in French) of some children learning about the greatest gift of all – Jesus! The booklets are well done and thoughtfully appropriate for our context – and super cool!
Now, given all that, can I offer some feedback to those of you who will prepare shoeboxes this Christmas? I can’t remember how many times we have been involved, directly or indirectly, here in Senegal with the distribution of shoeboxes, but it is at least half a dozen times over the past 15 years. I have watched little people I know well open their boxes, ooh’ed and aah’ed with them over the contents, and answered their questions about some of the items. Every year, I have thought of giving some advice on this topic, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful or critical. I just want to offer my advice, based on our experience in this one context:
- For any age boy here, what they really want is a soccer ball. So get the best quality mini soccer ball that you can fit into the box when it is inflated (or send a deflated ball with a pump) and you can basically forget about anything else! 🙂
- Brand new nice short-sleeved shirts (with no writing on them) for boys and girls. Kids here have few clothes and often wear old, ripped, hand-me-downs, so nice new shirts are really appreciated and will probably fit. (I don’t know any obese Senegalese kids.)
- Small flashlight with batteries (Most families don’t have electricity so a working flashlight is gold!)
- Good quality melamine plate, bowl, and/or cup (Practical and also special.)
- Soap AND a plastic soap dish that has a cover. When you bathe standing on a big rock in the dirt as kids do here, you really need the soap holder. And families never have enough soap. (Funny note: the kids didn’t know what the soap was because it was in a box. I am sure they would have figured it out though, even without our help.)
- Toothbrush in a toothbrush holder. Again, the plastic case for the toothbrush is really great when you don’t have a sink/counter/tiled bathroom but rather brush your teeth outside squatting over dirt and need to keep it in your room.
- Pencils, erasers, colored pencils, and sharpeners for all school-aged kids. And good quality pens for kids aged 10-14, in black, red, green, and blue. All of these are required for school and the ones from America last so much longer than the cheap ones available here.
- Hard candy and gum
- Hair elastics or head bands for girls
- A simple watch for older kids
- A solar calculator for older kids
- Sunglasses for older kids
- For the youngest girls, a baby doll with light brown skin and no hair (good for a child of any color)
- Toy car, truck or airplane for the youngest boys (The ones with bigger wheels that are made for toddlers and are larger than Matchbox size are good. Matchbox wheels are so small, they don’t work well in dirt.)
NOT AS GOOD items we have seen kids receive:
- Anything with instructions in English, even if it seems simple to you (We tried to explain to one girl who got a cool pair of markers that came with a clip so you could draw with them both at the same time and a set of paper 3-D glasses you then used to see what you drew in 3-D… but it didn’t make sense. And how do you even say 3-D in Wolof??)
- Any toy that is not universally recognizable (We have seen kids receive matching memory card games – a great idea but with no one to explain it to them, they are wasted.)
- Yo-yo’s (They don’t know what it is here.)
- Gloves, winter hats (You don’t know whether your box will end up in Siberia or Senegal.)
- Play-dough (Kids here have no idea what it is for.)
- Stuffed animals (Young kids here usually burst into tears when presented with stuffed animals from their shoeboxes. The kids who are old enough not to be scared are not interested. Also, animals carry meanings here that are culturally specific. One of our Sunday School kids got a cute stuffed owl and a much older sibling told me that he himself is terrified of owls. They connote evil and shapechangers. You can’t know what the animal will signify in the culture your box reaches.)
- Stickers or temporary tattoos (Kids don’t have anywhere to stick the stickers, and often the pictures don’t make sense or connect with their world. For example, cute puppy stickers don’t make much sense in a Muslim country because dogs are considered unclean in Islam.)
- T-shirts with words or pictures on them (Would you want to wear a shirt with something unknown written on it? And again, pictures have different meanings in different cultures. Stick with solid colors, stripes, or pretty designs.
- Anything cheap or fragile (One box had a white skinned, red-haired porcelain doll in it…)
- Two of the 10-year old boys in our Sunday School class got adult sized XL t-shirts in their boxes that were obviously left over from an event. They were brand new and will be worn by some adult in the household, but in my opinion, they would have been better donated to Good Will or the Salvation Army. Approach filling a shoebox like you would approach picking out a gift for a friend’s child, not as an opportunity to unload stuff you don’t want.
That’s my unsolicited advice on this topic; I hope you find it helpful!
Katie and her husband Corey Garrett have lived and worked in Senegal since 2000 with SIM, an interdenominational, international evangelical mission. They have three daughters. Katie is involved in children’s ministry and Corey is working on transcribing and publishing the Bible in Wolofal. For more information about their work, visit their website at: http://garrett.with.sim.org/