Thinking Out Loud

November 24, 2009

Another Look at Shoeboxes

For many years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Franklin Graham’s Operation Christmas Child project.   To see the look of ecstasy on the faces of the children in the promotional videos is to really know the joy that comes with giving even something small.

To critique the program would be unthinkable.   It would be like criticizing motherhood or apple pie or little kittens.   But I have some concerns about this that I haven’t seen heretofore in print or online.   So I thought I’d wade out deep into dangerous waters:

  1. A lot of people fill their shoeboxes with trinkets from the dollar store.   When these items break — which they will — how will third world children deal with the disappointment that Western kids are accustomed to?   Especially if they don’t own much else.
  2. Which begs the question, how are such items disposed of — sooner or later — in countries that don’t have an active recycling program?   What happens to all those boxes?   As barren and arid as some of those places are,  dotting the landscape with red and green boxes seems a bit irresponsible.   Maybe they can use the boxes for something.
  3. What’s the mileage on some of the trinkets and toys?    Check out the country of origin, factor in the purchase point in the U.S. as an example, and then plot the destination point.   We’re talking major carbon footprints.   And not the Margaret Fishback Powers kind of footprints.
  4. What about the inequities of what the kids receive?   One kid gets a cuddly Gund-type plush animal, while another gets socks.   I would be the kid getting the toothpaste and cheap sunglasses, while my friend would get some kind of awesome musical instrument toy.   Socks don’t make noise.  I would learn jealousy and covetousness all in a single day.
  5. Which begs the question, is there ever theft?   World wars have started over lesser things.    Do kids in faraway places take the inequities into their own hands?    Do they revere the licensed pencil case more than the one with geometric shapes and colors?   Is there trading?   If so, who sets the rules?
  6. Maybe not.   Maybe they share better than kids in the West do.   But somewhere along the line, it’s got to create a situation of personal private property.    I live on a street with ten houses where everybody owns a lawnmower.   We all could probably get by with one or two.   What I really need is access to a lawnmower.   But human nature being what it is, it rarely works that way unless you’re Shane Claiborne, or you live on an Operation Mobilization ship, or you’re one of the aging hippies living in the Jesus People project in inner-city Chicago.   (Apologies to Glenn Kaiser.)
  7. What about expectations?   If my kids don’t get what they’re hoping for there is always a great disappointment, and trust me, this year they aren’t getting what they’re hoping for.   Reminds of me that old song, “Is That All There Is?”   Some people get downright depressed after Christmas.   BTW, anyone remember who the artist was on that song?
  8. What’s the follow-up for the giver?   None.   Unlike sponsored children — which is another discussion entirely — the gift is really a shot in the dark, unless in next year’s video you happen to see a kid opening a box containing a rather unique action figure and a pair of furry dice which you know could only have come from your attic storage the year before.   (But furry dice?  What were you thinking?   The kid’s expression is going to be somewhat quizzical…)

Okay, so maybe the good outweighs any potential downside.   But it’s philosophy that I majored in, so somebody’s got to view things from outside the box — the shoebox in this case — once in awhile.    That’s why I call it thinking out loud.

December 1st update:  Don’t miss the comment here by Sarah and the link it contains.



  1. Those are really good questions, Paul, and I would bet that Samaritan’s Purse probably has some good answers too. Here are mine, for what they are worth:

    re point #1 – when my family fills our shoe boxes we try to get things that won’t break ie: coloured pencils (and a pencil sharpener!), notebooks, and yes, socks too!

    #2 I would bet that the kids keep the boxes, and play with them more than they play with what’s in them. a nice, strong, cardboard box can be a treasure in some countries…to kids and adults.

    #3 You’re right, and I had never thought of that – those items will sure have travelled by the time they reach their destination!

    #4,5 & 6 I hope that SP goes through the boxes and makes sure that each child in a particular WV development receive boxes with equal-type gifts so it doesn’t lead to envy/jealousy

    #7 Having been there and seen the results as the kids receive their boxes…the excitement/joy, I can tell you there are no disappointments. These boxes, from my experience, go to kids who are used to playing with sticks, stones, cardboard, old tires etc – they are thrilled with what they receive.

    #8 — but isn’t that the case with much of even our financial giving? We trust our churches/Christian organizations to be good stewards of what we give, and believe that we have actually given ‘unto the Lord’ (ie: a cup of cold water in His Name) So our blessing comes from blessing/pleasing Him.

    As an aside, I heard around our church, this time, comments about ‘the nerve’ of SP asking for a financial donation for the sending of the boxes, and also a comment or two about “Why don’t we take care of children here in Canada first?” I wasn’t sure how to process that. Approx $20 plus $7 of my money is not much to give, considering what I and my family have been blessed with.

    Comment by kaybee — November 25, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    • Thanks for daring to reply to this one! Never has the phrase, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ been more meaningful.

      This was a half-tongue in half-cheek piece. I decided to play devil’s advocate, and as I said at the outset, I’ve never seen anyone dare to criticize the program, so I knew this post would occupy some rather unique space online.

      I think it’s good every once in awhile to step outside the box and rethink things. And your closing paragraph suggests that some others have misgivings, but for different reasons than I listed.

      (And on a purely academic level, I am interested in what happens when you introduce personal property to people who have always enjoyed communal property. That was the point of the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy.)

      But now that I’ve broken the ice, I gotta back to a piece I’m writing trashing apple pie and kittens.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 25, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    • how do you get the operation Christmas child boxes please

      Comment by jo grant — October 20, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  2. Thanks for this article–I think all your questions and concerns are excellent. If you’re interested in more, with a powerful eyewitness story about shoebox problems, see

    It shouldn’t be about followup for the giver at all; that’s a form of strings-attached giving.

    Additional questions:

    Does this encourage children to value Western cultures more than their own?

    Do “shoebox” gifts become better than something simpler made lovingly by a family member?

    Are they introducing commercial gift-giving into a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas in that way?

    Do they respect people of other faiths who don’t celebrate Christmas at all?

    Do they portray one race/culture as being better or more successful than others?

    Most importantly, how do they work to bring about real change, in places where the needs are for justice, peace, and access to the necessities of life?

    Comment by Sarah Shepherd — December 1, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    • Sarah,

      Thank you SO MUCH for writing. I had some ‘hunches’ about some issues when I wrote this, but you’ve raised a number of issues I never consciously considered, and articulated them well.

      You’ve also satisfied me that I am not alone in having some misgivings about the whole thing; even though it is — as I said at the outset — not fashionable to do so in some circles.

      But the real payoff of your comment is in the link. I hope everyone who lands here will take the time to scan at least some of the 16 pages in that report. (Especially pages 4 to 11; it will only take a few minutes.)

      I may even link back to this in a future post because I think that an alternative look at this subject is healthy, at the very least.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 1, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

      • If you would tell each district where the boxes are going it would be great. If I know what country the boxes are going to I have more idea what to put in it. In a warm country they won’t want warm caps, mittens and socks in addition to hygene supplies, toys & school supplies etc. If a child is cold he/she will be glad for the socks!! But I can’t find even by Googling it where they will be delivered to. Also I find the boxes provided by the Samaritan’s Purse are too small to get much of anything in–too short for a regular school “scribbler” and very little else. Just a tiny bit bigger would make a huge difference.

        Comment by Vera — October 29, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

      • They seem to allow you to track your box after you prepare it, but they don’t give any information beforehand.

        The closest thing you’re going to get to being able to contact them with these excellent observations is to use this form:

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 29, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

  3. […] I wrote a post a few days ago questioning some aspects of the Samaritans Purse Christmas shoebox project, I was simply giving […]

    Pingback by Best of this Week’s Links « Thinking Out Loud — December 2, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  4. […] easy to not see the big picture, have wrong motives, or misplaced priorities.   Jumping into the Shoebox debate with what I believe is one of her best blog posts ever, Ruth Wilkinson (who may be related) […]

    Pingback by The President’s Not So Politically Correct Christmas Message « Thinking Out Loud — December 25, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  5. […] post:  My original post on this Related post:  Reference to the comment wherein the chart was located. Comments […]

    Pingback by A Different Kind of Charity « Thinking Out Loud — December 29, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  6. Hmm… My church works with a particular orphanage in the Phillipines and we make sure we send enough shoe boxes for everyone in the orphanage including the adult workers. I think if you work specifically with an orphanage and find out who the kids are and their ages and how many there are, this can be a very wonderful thing. The children in the orphanages we send to are very grateful and so are the adults.

    Comment by don priest — May 26, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    • So, is your program independent of Operation Christmas Child?

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — May 26, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

  7. I like what a number of churches have been doing where we get together on one evening and all bring Items to split between 40 to 50 boxes. then all the boxes seem similar and it ends up being more affordable due to sharing the cost of some of the larger items. My family has decided that instead of doing our own boxes for the last 6 years I have gone to our local payless shoes during really good sales and bought kids shoes. this morning I went down to the store and by combining the 20% off sale and their buy one get one 50% off I got 60 pairs of shoes and 5 dozen socks for 180$. the shoes alone worked out to 2.46 a pair. By shopping smart I hope that 2.46 a box will go way farther than a few dollar store items.

    Comment by rae-anne — October 30, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    • Thanks for your input. Great concepts. I really like what you’re doing.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 30, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

  8. I totally agree with the “buying smart” and “buying sensible” thoughts, but the whole idea of the gift boxes is to possibly open the door so that the children and even their parents can be reached with the Gospel. I am sure that there will be a lot of “junk” toys included because that is the sort of junk a lot of people buy for their own kids but if a 50 cent kazoo can entertain a child for an hour and open the gate for the Gospel, well, I’m all for that kazoo!!

    Comment by Lynda Hickman — October 31, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    • Yes. It’s important to remind people that Samaritan’s Purse adds some literature in the local language. I would hope there we would be no backlash where the kids would associate that message with “the toys that broke.”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 31, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  9. Great Thoughts! However, some of the concerns are definately addressed by Samaritan’s Purse already. Just a couple things that should be noted: People need to realize (and this fact should not be hidden), that every single box is opened and re-packed, this helps with the “fairness” of gifts. Also, other items are added to the boxes by the organization (i.e. language appropriate Gospels). As for the issue of recycling, I can’t speak from first hand experience, but I have been told on at least two seperate occasions, that these boxes are treated by the recipients, in much the same way that children from our culture would treat a jewelry box or toy box. The box itself in many situations is a “gift!” Finally, I want to add a comment about what these boxes are actually filled with. It is reality that many of these boxes are filled by good-hearted people at dollar stores. Certainly for some this is out of obligation, they can only afford dollar store items, and I am a firm believer that God looks at the heart and not the cost of the shoebox. But I am certain that there is another pocket of people out there, who want to so something nice, and who could afford to fill hundreds of shoeboxes with nice things if they wanted to, but who also go to dollar stores to fill one box. Is the heart really the same in both instances? If I were to go to a dollar store and buy gifts for my young family members at that store only, they would definately be less than impressed! So let’s be honest here, why do those who can afford much still shop at the dollar store for those who are in need. Is it because we think that they won’t know the difference? Is it because we think that’s all they are worth? Or are we simply being thrifty? I don’t have the answer, but if I can afford it, maybe I should place more expensive items in my shoebox? I’m sure the recipient would be thrilled!

    Comment by Sheldon — November 3, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I just wanted to get people thinking, and the second half of your comment is certainly a challenge to anyone filling a box to give what their own children would want to receive.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 3, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

  10. You bring up some interesting points. I wanted to add to that I use a Plastic box with lid when I send mine. I figure that the families that my boxes go to might make better use (maybe for carrying water, etc) in it. I’m sure it’ll last longer than a regular show box.
    Second ~ I try to fill it with items that will last long. Crayons, colored pencils, sharpener, paper/pads, toothbrush, comb, hair clips, etc. I do get some items from the party store that come in the dozen. usually a slinky or fun glasses. The more frugal (not too cheap) I can be be per box, the more boxes I can send :) That’s why I start at after school sales in August and such. I slowly collect the items.
    As a previous poster said…if the kazoo (or slinky in my case) helps a child learn about the Gospel I’m all for it!

    Comment by Jeanette — November 8, 2010 @ 12:29 am

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only one who had serious reservations about the OCC program. I just see it as a well-intentioned venture that, in reality, exports Western materialism. Even given the potential spiritual good, do we want children associating Jesus with wrapped goodies? Isn’t that enough of a problem here in America? I’m a Christian who thinks Samaritan’s Purse has done wonderful things in helping people around the world. But let’s help children by really making a difference in their lives. World Vision and other ministries have programs where you can contribute toward gifts such as farm animals, wells, small business opportunities for women, etc. Much, much better than trinkets.

    Comment by Lucy — December 6, 2013 @ 4:04 am

  12. Thanks for raising these questions. I’m also a little uncomfortable by this approach to charity. While I totally applaud the sentiment behind Operation Christmas Child, I’m very confused by the economics behind it.

    Why is it a good idea for, say, a toothbrush or a small child’s toy to be manufactured in Taiwan, shipped to a Canadian distribution centre, trucked to Walmart, bought by me, packed into a small box, and then flown to Afghanistan? It doesn’t alleviate structural poverty in Afghanistan, it depresses any local market in small consumer goods, it’s a hugely inefficient way of distributing things, and it assumes that I, a rich, Western consumer, am the best person to decide what goods a child in Afghanistan really needs.

    If the point is to provide goods, why not buy in bulk? Or better yet, invest in long term infrastructure and health improvements?

    I sometimes wonder whether the point of the entire exercise is the sense of wellbeing that it brings to the donor, rather than the impact it has on the recipient.

    Comment by trevor — December 8, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

    • Yes, this is feel-good charity, and the carbon footprint of the goods shipped (and re-shipped) is huge.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 8, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

  13. The shoebox gifts go to MILLIONS of children all over the world. The contents of the box is worth only about $25. The boxes are distributed by churches. The children are invited to a party at the church and the gospel is presented to them (and their parents). The children are greatly impacted by receiving the gift as well as by the gospel message. These children have nothing. The pastors in small village churches follow up with those who receive the message and gifts. Some boxes are given at orphanages or hospitals where children are without parents. Many orphaned children in Africa are stricken with aids. This outreach makes a difference to them. They learn that God cares and so does someone else. This is a marvelous way to spread the gospel.

    Comment by dottieparish — December 8, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

    • The shoeboxes are supplemented by a booklet that is given to the children, and yes, there is a ‘party.’ What if local churches paid to sponsor the party and the booklet distribution instead? The party itself would be a luxury in some areas and still makes the point that we ‘give’ because God ‘gave.’ They would still, in your words, “learn that God cares and so does someone else.”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 8, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  14. While I do agree with *some* of the points made, I can only speak from the standpoint that I know that a person in our congregation in Markham, who was originally a recipient of one of these shoeboxes years ago as a child in the Dominican, was deeply touched by the gifts. By the simple act of love that was shown by some unknown person who provided simple things like socks and underwear and a couple of pencils to a poor child, this person made a commitment to follow Christ, later was educated in Canada, and is now leading a missionary organization back it the DR and is gratefully receiving those shoeboxes again for the kids he’s working with.

    Would this have happened without that simple shoebox? Only God knows. But I for one think that if it encourages the wealthy West to think about the kids in developing countries and give, then I think it’s a good thing. It can’t be the only way, but there is NO DOUBT that there IS an impact. Is it the best “bang for the buck”? Who knows? But with no ‘buck’, there won’t be ANY ‘bang’ :)

    God works in wonderful ways. Did it make sense for God to come to earth in the form of a little baby, born in a barn? Did it make sense to have shepherds being the first ones to see the newborn King? Did it make sense to have Him heal a blind man? Did it make sense to have Him die on a cross? Probably not — at least not to us. But God had a plan.

    God has a plan for that shoebox too. We may not understand it, and it might not make any sense that the simple gifts we offer to an unknown child in a far away country will have any impact, but they did for the man I mentioned above.

    God’s plans are not man’s plans, and it’s probably better that way :)

    Comment by Murray Lahn — December 8, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    • Well said, especially the 2nd paragraph, which really made me think about this yet again.

      I just don’t know how to resolve the tension between the two viewpoints. Stricter guidelines as to what to include and what not to include? Allow different countries (Canada, US, UK, Australia, etc.) to be ‘twinned’ with specific nations? Many people filling the boxes don’t know if they’re giving to people in tropical climates or areas where they can include — as some do — gloves. Some people enclose a Gospel of John in English, while others purchase one in Spanish.

      I think we want to know that we’re meeting real needs. The “Christmas catalog” approach resonates more with us as a family, so that’s what we do. We’ve bought goats and vegetables and bicycles, and have to believe that the mission org’s in question know what’s needed most.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 8, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

      • Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with the catalog approach as well (and probably more so). We’ve supported Compassion in this way for years, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from my blog :) Shoeboxes I think just give an alternative to those who aren’t committed to giving in a bog way, but still want to give in some way (like non-Christians?). You might also notice that Samaritan’s Purse ALSO has a catalog option as well.

        As for the “gloves for the tropics” scenario, I’m reasonably certain that the boxes are screened for inappropriate items and “evened out” along the way (for a laugh, make sure you want Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty pack his shoebox …

        If I can get people to fill a shoebox…. great. If they buy a goat or a cow… better. If they sponsor a child…. even better!! But almost no one can say they can’t afford to fill a shoebox with stuff, and so for me, that’s always to a good place to start :)

        Comment by Murray Lahn — December 9, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

  15. Hey thanks for your article. I am also a Christian and participated in OCC last year, this year as I’ve been thinking about it again I had some concerns. Mainly are we doing something good or are we trying to take Christmas and turn it into something that looks like our Westernized consumer driven madness? Interesting when I googled all the first few articles were about how evil Samaritans Purse is for trying to evangelize through this project, for me I have no problem with them trying to share the gospel with these kids but I wonder if the gospel could be shown in a more culturally appropriate, less materialistic way.

    Comment by Erica — October 29, 2015 @ 3:57 pm

    • Thanks so much for this comment. I agree 100%. It really fails on both ends; we’re exporting materialism and then feeling self-satisfied that we’ve done our bit for the third world and need not do more until next year.

      (I might re-run this article this year; thanks for reminding me about it.)

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 29, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

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