07/11/2014 04:20 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

What Is Operation Christmas Child?

(KL) SHOEBOX03-- Full boxes are ready to be shipped to orphans and empoverished children overseas at a warehouse in Aurora as part of Operation Christmas Child. RJ Sangosti/ The Denver Post (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Kids gathering useful donations for those less fortunate than themselves at Christmas time – what's not to like? Yet the Operation Christmas Child box scheme is surprisingly controversial. Here we look at what it's all about and hear parents' views - some who love it, some who are less keen.

What is Operation Christmas Child?

Operation Christmas Child (OCC) is a scheme run by the Christian relief and development agency Samaritan's Purse (not to be confused with The Samaritans).
The idea is that kids (or indeed adults) pack a shoe box with gifts and useful items and the box is then wrapped and sent to underprivileged children worldwide. If box senders choose to do so they can donate an additional small sum and track where their box ends up.

Operation Christmas Child has become very popular both in the US and UK, and here many schools, churches and other organisations have got involved in recent years. Since the scheme started in 1990, more than 113 million children have received boxes in over 130 countries.

On arriving in their destinations, boxes are distributed by local churches – often in disaster or war zones and the OCC website gives Syrian refugees as an example of recipients at the moment.

How it started

Operation Christmas Child was originally set up in 1990 by Dave and Gill Cooke, from Wrexham in Wales, with a view to delivering boxes to Romanian orphans. In 1996 Samaritan's Purse took over the scheme.

What should I put in the box?

Donors need to first choose whether their box will be for a boy or a girl and then select the age group (2-4, 5-9 or 10-14) – the box is then labelled accordingly.

The next part is fun for children and can be educational as they have to think through what might be useful to others living in very different circumstances.

OCC suggests a mix of new small toys and practical items. Toys could be a skipping rope, yoyo, ball, vehicle, doll or teddy bear (with a CE label) or puzzles. Stationery is welcome – pencils, notebooks, solar calculators or stamp and ink pads – and hygiene items are also popular, perhaps a toothbrush, wrapped soap, comb or brush. A hat or cap, wind-up torch or hair grips/ bands are additional suggestions.

On top of the contents, you also need to give a £3 donation to cover shipping and distribution costs.

Is there anything you shouldn't send?

OCC asks families not to include the following in boxes:
"Used or damaged items, war related items such as toy guns, play soldiers or knives; chocolate or other food items; liquids or lotions of any type including bubbles; medicines; hand-made or knitted stuffed toys; anything of a political, racial or religious nature; marbles or sharp objects; glass containers, mirrors or fragile items; clothing [other than gloves, hats/ caps and scarves]."

Why the controversy?

The issue some people have with OCC is the apparent link between faith and aid donations. OCC say that Christian literature might be handed out at the same time as the boxes and in some cases children are invited to join a Christian course involving bible stories and teachings.

OCC is open on its website about being a Christian organisation trying to spread the word and explains "the mission of Operation Christmas Child is to demonstrate God's love in a tangible way to needy children around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ."

OCC add that their shoe boxes are given out to all children whatever their faith: "We always give shoe boxes to children based on need, regardless of their background or religious beliefs. It's an unconditional gift of love."

There are plenty of other religion-based charities and OCC isn't alone in this but for critics of the scheme, dishing out goodies to children at the same time as religious material is an inappropriate combination.

Disquiet on social media discussion sites also stems from donors not always receiving information to make it clear that there is religious link to the boxes or the charity, so families then feel they couldn't make an informed decision on whether to participate. Others are uncomfortable with views and beliefs expressed by Samaritan's Purse as an organisation.

What alternatives are there for those who aren't keen on the OCC scheme?

Although OCC seems to be the biggest scheme at present in the UK, there are other options; some also managed by religious organisations and churches, others not.

LinktoHope sends boxes to Eastern Europe. Aquabox provides water filters in boxes also filled with carefully chosen humanitarian goods, to destinations such as Syria, Uganda, Rwanda and the Philippines.

Charity Mary's Meals has a scheme to provide backpacks filled with basic educational supplies to its aid locations.

Here's what some parents we spoke to think about OCC:

Sue, mother of nine-year-old Samantha, from Buckinghamshire:
"We thoroughly enjoy doing the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes. My daughter loves choosing things. The guidance over what to put in them is clear and it's good to think that a child who otherwise wouldn't get any Christmas presents gets something that someone has put together with love and care.

"You can find out where they go to if you make your a donation online. Ours mostly go to places like Albania and Romania as it's hard to find sun hats and sunglasses in November, so we always end up buying woolly hats and glasses.

"I know there has been some controversy over them including a Christian message of some sort in with the boxes. However, because Christmas is a Christian festival I think that's absolutely fair enough. Of course, because we do ours through our church then I think that's fine too."

Jane, who has twin nine-year-old daughters and lives in Essex:
"The girls love doing it, picking special items for children they know haven't got much and won't get many presents. I think it makes them realise how lucky they are and they always want to buy an extra item from their 'own' pocket money. I also give a budget so they can work out how they can get the most from the money."

Harriet, from Surrey, is mum to two children who were asked to send boxes via their nursery:
"Children in poor countries do not need more plastic junk. They need things like vaccines and education. There's also some concern that Samaritan's Purse uses the boxes for evangelical purposes."

Harriet feels uncomfortable about the organisation itself and views expressed by its President, Franklin Graham, about other religions. For these reasons she decided not to participate and raised her concerns with her children's nursery who were not aware of the background to OCC.

Mother of one, Vicki, from Lancashire, has practical reasons why she dislikes the scheme:
"It's a nice idea in theory to send supplies to children who have very little but I wonder if it is really an effective use of resources to be shipping shoe boxes all over the world. Wouldn't the money spent on contents be better donated directly to an aid organisation who will then spend it on items very desperately needed on the ground and sourced from closer by?"

Does your children's school participate in Operation Christmas Child?
What do you think?
Do they learn from it and enjoy it or do you feel it isn't appropriate?