Pastor Graham distributing shoe boxes in Honduras in 1999
It might seem like nothing more than a shoebox with a few small gifts tucked inside for a child who otherwise might get nothing for Christmas.
But an Operation Christmas Child shoebox is really much more—it’s an incredible evangelical outreach that has delivered the Gospel message to more than 146 million children.
And Prestonwood has been a part of it since the beginning.
Ross Robinson served as Minister of Missions & Evangelism at Prestonwood in the 1990s when OCC began. He now works for Samaritan’s Purse, the organization that founded Operation Christmas Child.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Ross said.
Franklin Graham, the eldest son of Billy Graham and the President and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, had a friend in England with an idea to provide a bit of Christmas cheer to children in what was then war-torn Bosnia.
“He told Franklin, ‘I’d like to get some shoeboxes for the children in Bosnia. Can you help get them there?’ And Franklin said yes.”
Time slipped by until one day in November 1993, when Franklin’s assistant announced that his English friend was on the phone.
“It turned out that he collected 28,000 shoeboxes,” Ross said.
The next year, Samaritan’s Purse borrowed the idea and launched Operation Christmas Child. And it began enlisting churches to help, including Prestonwood.
“We were in the old location at Hillcrest and Arapaho—this was 1994 when it all began—and Deb Graham and I were sitting at a table passing out brochures,” Ross said. “It was overwhelming to see the response of our people. We had no idea.”
A short time before, Pastor Jack Graham had learned about OCC from Franklin. He was visiting Billy Graham when Franklin filled him in on a new evangelical outreach for needy children around the world.
“Jack came back and showed me the shoebox and he said, ‘I want us to do this,’” Deb recalled. “He got Ross and me together—at that point we’d never done anything like this before—and soon we were handing out empty shoeboxes.”
OCC box distribution in 2007
Prestonwood families embraced this new mission outreach, moms and dads and kids buying gifts for their special child, figuring out how to get everything into a small cardboard shoebox, and maybe adding a note or a photo of their family.
“Pastor did a great job promoting it from the pulpit, and Deb, she was there front and center from the beginning,” Ross said. “She was just unbelievable.”
“When we first did it, we had a table set up and I thought we’d get about 100 boxes,” Deb said. “We didn’t have a lot of help and when the shoeboxes started coming in, we had to pack and repack them in the big boxes and we crammed a U-Haul full.”
“I want to say we collected 6,000 or 7,000 shoeboxes that first year,” Ross said, “and it ignited the church. I think it’s a powerful witness of the hearts and hands of Prestonwood members and guests.”
Year by year, Operation Christmas Child grew.
“We had more boxes and more publicity and it became a tradition for our families,” Deb said. “I think it was the war (in Bosnia) and the pictures of the children that really got to people.
Pastor Jack Graham and daughter, Kelly, and Ross Robinson in Honduras in 1999
“And after Bosnia, there was some other disaster and they expanded Operation Christmas Child,” Deb said, and today, shoeboxes carrying gifts and the Good News of salvation reach many parts of the globe.
One year, Pastor Graham and daughter, Kelly, traveled with Franklin and Ross to Honduras to distribute shoeboxes and share the love of God.
Most of us will never know the impact an Operation Christmas Child shoebox can have on a child. But at least one member of Prestonwood understands completely.
Aneta Cwian was 13 years old, living with her family in eastern Poland, and every day was a struggle. She had been raised Catholic as a child, but one year Baptist neighbors invited her to a Christian camp. Soon Aneta’s family—a single mom and four children—began attending the Baptist church.
“It was a very difficult time for my family. We struggled financially and my mom told us we were not receiving any gifts for Christmas,” Aneta remembered. There was simply no money.
15,000 boxes collected this year
But they trundled off to the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist church, and once inside, someone told Aneta “there was a surprise for me.”
The surprise was an Operation Christmas Child shoebox “with so many toys, colorful school supplies, and coloring books,” Aneta said.
“What I loved the most, there was a letter and a picture from the family who sent it. I remember my family and I were sitting together on Christmas and translating their letter with a dictionary,” she said.
“I was very, very thankful and blessed,” Aneta said. “It was actually my best Christmas.”
And now, years later, she can still remember the photo of that family who made her own family’s Christmas a little brighter.
Over the past 23 years, Prestonwood members and guests have provided more than 130,000 shoeboxes to Operation Christmas Child, according to Ross.
Minister of Missions Mobilization Josh Rolf
For many years, Prestonwood has served as a central drop-off point for other churches across North Texas. More than 600,000 OCC shoeboxes have passed through Prestonwood on their way to needy children across the globe.
However, over the years, our church’s role with Operation Christmas Child has changed, said Minister of Missions Mobilization Josh Rolf.
“We’ve had as many as 40,000 boxes come through Prestonwood in one year, and back in Ross’s day, up to 60,000 boxes,” Josh said.
But that was when Prestonwood was about the only OCC collection center in the area.
“Over the years, we’ve spun off a lot of relay centers and collection centers at churches that used to bring their boxes here,” he explained. “It used to be just Prestonwood. Now there’s something like 15 collection centers in the area.”
Volunteers loading a truck this year
With the final donors arriving, “we’ll probably be collecting about 15,000 boxes,” he said. “And that’s mostly from Prestonwood. It’s been a great year.”
And the thanks go to the thousands of Prestonwood donors, and to the volunteers who staff the Missions Ministry Building parking lot, pack the shoeboxes and fill the trailers, Josh said.
“While our staff has put a frame around it, our people have owned it,” he said. “They’ve been out there in the heat, in the cold.
“And everyone took the time to pray over these boxes.”