This holiday season, New Life Community Church rallied together to pack gift-filled shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.
Hundreds of Park Rapids volunteers filled 5,258 shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, hygiene products, clothing and gospel messages.
The packages are destined for children in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, St. Lucia and Madagascar living in extreme poverty or affected by war, disease and natural disaster.
For many children, it is the first Christmas gift they will receive.
After accepting the gifts, children can enroll in a 12-lesson Bible study course.
Stephanie Kern organized and mobilized New Life Community Church's effort, now in its 18th year.
Most years, the small church — normally 50 members on a given Sunday — packed a few dozen shoeboxes. Last year, Kern felt led to set a goal of filling 1,000 shoeboxes. The church met that goal.
This summer, Kern started thinking and praying about what the goal should be this Christmas.
"I kept seeing the number 5,000 in my head, which was insane! Five thousand shoeboxes? I couldn't even imagine packing that many," she said.
Kern knew if they were going to achieve this year's goal, the community would have to get involved. She became active on social media, spreading the word about Operation Christmas Child.
"Everybody pitched in," she said, including church and non-church members. "It was so much fun to see so many people get involved in the community.
McDonald's donated Happy Meal toys for the project. A $1,000 donation from Park Rapids American Legion helped purchase supplies.
Coborn's became a collection point for donated items to be dropped off. Kern, who works at Coborn's, would pick up the gifts from customer service and load them into her car each night and deliver them to the church.
"Not everyone has the resources to contribute financially," Kern said. "We love it when people donate their time."
A gifted seamstress made dresses or spruced up gently used clothing. Another group made jump ropes from recycled t-shirts.
Kern and her merry elves remained ever-watchful for clearance sales and discounts. She left a thrift store with four cartloads of shoes, on sale for a quarter a pair.
"We have a whole team of people that are pretty amazing shoppers," she said. "Huge group effort. Many, many people helped."
The church hosted packing parties on Wednesdays.
"We had at least seven packing parties. One was an overnight with youth that packed 1,000 boxes," Kern said.
Gifts were selected for both boys and girl by age category: 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14 years old. Dolls, cars, marbles and stuffed animals were among the toys.
Kern delivered the last shipment of shoeboxes to the Twin Cities processing center Nov. 26.
She's currently raising $35,000 for shipping costs. A $7 per box donation is suggested. To make a financial contribution, contact Arla Wright, church secretary, at 732-7000.
Work has already begun for next year's project.
"As soon as the last box got shipped, we shopped that day in the Cities," Kern said. It seriously does take 365 days. It's fun."
She doesn't know yet what 2017's goal will be.
"It's rewarding. I would love to be a fly on the wall when the kids receive the packages," she said.
Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child, has collected and delivered more than 135 million gift-filled shoeboxes to children in more than 150 countries and territories. Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, Samaritan's Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing the Christian faith.