Christmas, it is a time for giving and for receiving but for me, much more than that it is a time of goodwill, for thinking of others, for being generous and for reaching out.
You'll see lots of blog posts at this time of year from people taking part in shoe box Christmas gift schemes (particularly Operation Christmas Child) and your children might come home from school, church or something like brownies with a leaflet asking you to help and make a shoe box of gifts for a child, family or elderly person in need.
What do you do with this leaflet? That request from your children? Because lets be honest most kids want to get involved, their heart is to do something kind.
Do you bin the leaflet and hope your kid will forget? Do you tell them 'No, we are not getting involved as that charity is making kids become Christians'? Do you quickly remember how low your bank balance is and decide that £10 would be better off spent on your own child? Or maybe you adopt that age-old opinion, that charity starts at home.
Let's be honest, it is completely up to you what you do. No-one has to do anything they do not want to and no-one has the right to judge you for your choices. You just have to be happy yourself with what you choose to do or as the case may be, don't do.
Let's explore some reasons you might not want to get involved -
1. I can't afford it
If money is an issue for you and you can't afford to make a full shoe box, then why not suggest to school/ your child's group that they have a couple of class boxes and you could just donate one item? Or team up with a friend and make the gift together. It really doesn't have to be expensive, I can make a great shoe box for as little as £10, it just takes some planning and clever shopping.
2. I don't want to send cheap rubbish
A few people have told me before they would not send a shoe box gift as they are filled with cheap plastic tat and it will be broken within minutes and then the recipient child will be upset. Let me assure you as someone who has visited very poor children in Belarus, Ethiopia and India that these children have so little that they are pleased with anything and everything. A skipping rope that cost us £1 is a complete luxury to them as is a bag of sweet treats. The best advise I can give is for you to give them what we might call 'old fashioned toys' - sports equipment, dolls, toy cars, dinosaurs, musical instruments and anything sturdy and versatile. They have no interest in fashion or outdoing their friend!
3. It's not fair and the children will get jealous of each other
Truly this has not been my experience. The children I have seen receive shoe boxes and adults I've talked to who were shoe box recipients as children have been satisfied with whatever they received in their gift box. They do not appear to be like the children we are used to who shout 'it's not fair' at every opportunity. There is no grabbing and coveting others gifts. They actually seem overjoyed that their friend has something fun and cool and hope it might be shared with them for playtime.
I chatted to an adult recipient who told me she recalls the flavoured toothpaste that came in her box and how special it made her feel. I was flabbergasted, I hate putting a toothbrush and paste in the box as I (in my Western mindset) felt they were boring.
4. It's a hassle that I just don't need
As I said before, your choice but from experience I know that when I do something selfless and for another who has a lot less than me I feel really good about what I have done. I tend to walk around with a big smile for at least that day. We all like the idea of random acts of kindness or paying it forward and these are the kind of concepts we are teaching our children by getting them involved with making a shoe box gift.
5. What those children need is food, shelter and clean water not toys
You are right, in part. The shoe box recipients generally do need more food, clean water, better shelter and probably clothes too, those practicalities are an absolute necessity for them to be able to live. They also need other things to allow them to not only live but to thrive and to grow too. Believe it or not many of the items in these shoe boxes - teddies, hairbrush, jewellery or hat make the world of difference to a child living in poverty. They feel appreciated, loved, confident, worthwhile and inspired.
6. It harms the local economy
I understand that some aid is ill thought through and can negatively impact the local economy. I've seen firsthand the difference that aid can make when it is injected into a project that has been conceived and grown by the local community, they really are the best ones to come up with solutions to their problems.
But shoe box gifts harming the local economy - how? These are not things that the recipient families could have gone out and bought, they do not have the means to do so and it's not the case that a group of Westerners arrive and dish the boxes out in a manner that doesn't fit with the cultures and norms of the community. All boxes for Operation Christmas Child are distributed by local partner churches, charities and missions who are already working in that area and probably know many of the families already.
7. No one is there to help those kids the rest of the year
I've already said that the people giving out the boxes are those who ARE available to help in the local area the whole year through, they are based in the local area and have a desire to see people released from poverty and oppression. Samaritans Purse do not just run Operation Christmas Child they are also a massive and effective provider of humanitarian relief: they are on the ground in Liberia training up doctors and nurses to cope with the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak; following the most recent earthquake they have volunteers in Haiti fighting to keep cholera at bay; and there are people working in over 100 countries across the world to try and help it become a better place.
8. Operation Christmas Child are forcing kids to convert to Christianity
You've heard that literature telling the child about what it means to follow Jesus is put in every box, right? Let me tell you on my life, it is lies! In the UK they NEVER put any literature in the boxes. The boxes are checked at a warehouse to ensure they meet customs requirements and to ensure the items in the boxes are suitable for the child, ie: they are new and unused with good use by dates for sweets etc and then they are sealed with tape and the next person to open the box is the child.
Yes at the time they get the box they might be offered a leaflet about being a Christian and they might be offered a place on a course to introduce them to Christianity but there are no strings attached. If the child or their family does not want them to be involved then they won't be.
Image Credit: Jonty Wilde
When I travelled to Belarus with OCC to take part in some shoe box distributions we didn't give out any leaflets and the course was not running as it was not appropriate at that time due to the local political climate. And this is what happens, the local contacts make the decision if it is safe and appropriate to give out the literature and if it isn't then the kids still get a shoe box and a message of love.
The gift is unconditional and before I travelled with OCC this was my greatest concern and if I had found that only certain children got boxes or that there were strings or terms attached I'd have never packed another box but here we are four years later and the kids and I have just made up six.
So after reading that, what do you think? Are the shoe boxes a bad idea?
If you want to read more about Samaritans Purse, the charity behind Operation Christmas Child then head over and read my full article on Mummy from the Heart.
To be frank, it doesn't matter which charity you choose to give to but I'd just urge you to consider giving to one of them at this special time of year.