With over a month to go until Christmas, many haven’t even thought about purchasing, wrapping and delivering gifts yet.
Dawn Willis and Cindy Fairchild, full-time volunteers with Operation Christmas Child, think about it all year long. But the gifts aren’t for their relatives and friends; instead, they’re for needy children around the world.
For the past week, Fairchild, Willis and other volunteers have been posted at the Athens Wesleyan Church in Athens Township, where OCC has set up a drop-off center to accept shoeboxes packed with gifts for children in over 100 countries. 
The two are joined by other volunteers, many wearing red and green, waiting for boxes to arrive. After some idle time, a couple walks in.
“Seventy-six boxes!” they announce. “Ten more than last year.” 
The volunteers leap to their feet and swiftly walk outside, grabbing several boxes at a time out of the couple’s car and emptying it within a minute. The group places the boxes on a table, registers them, sorts them and packs them into larger cartons, which will be transported at the end of the week to a collection center. The Athens collection site’s boxes go to Big Flats, N.Y., which serves relay centers in four New York counties, because it’s a closer drive than the next closest center in Williamsport, Willis said.
From Big Flats, the cartons will be shipped to a processing center in Charlotte, N.C., where volunteers will inspect each box and prepare them for shipment and distribution overseas.
In its first day of operation, Nov. 12, the Athens center took in 342 boxes, Willis said. At least 80 more were brought in Tuesday, and as the center continued operations throughout the week, Willis expected hundreds more boxes to be collected.
Operation Christmas Child, a project of international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, holds its annual collection drive each November at nearly 2,800 centers across the United States. Despite the project’s name, needy children overseas receive the boxes throughout the year and not just at Christmas time, Willis said.
Donors pack the boxes with toys, candies, hygiene items, school supplies and other necessities. The boxes are distributed to children in Chad, India, Haiti, Kenya, Ukraine and about 100 other countries, she said. 
While the organization doesn’t typically serve the United States, children affected by Hurricane Sandy will also receive boxes this year, said Hollie Snyder, the program’s area coordinator.
According to information provided by OCC, more than 8.6 million shoe boxes were collected internationally last year. The United States isn’t the only country that packs boxes, Willis said. Packed boxes also come from Austria, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom. In fact, a man from Wales founded the program in 1990, according to information provided by OCC.
This year, OCC expects to deliver its 100 millionth shoebox since Samaritan’s Purse adopted the program in 1993, Snyder said. A symbolic shoebox will make several stops across the country to be filled in celebration of the occasion, she said.
Packing a shoebox is a great way to help others because it’s easy to do, Willis said. Many children in the United States either pack boxes or volunteer at drop-off points, and children as young as 14 can become a full-time volunteer, she said.
Willis, Fairchild and other full-time volunteers work year-round to promote the program, speaking at community organizations, lining up volunteers and sending mailers to past donors. Willis and Fairchild even dressed up as shoeboxes for Halloween and marched in the Valley’s Halloween parade. The boxes “were fun to make,” Fairchild said.
Fairchild said the full-time volunteers in Athens have a dedicated voicemail at the church to handle year-round business; the number is (570) 888-6734, ext. 4.
Willis became a full-time volunteer two years ago after volunteering on a part-time basis for several years. She leapt at the chance to devote more time to the organization, she said.
“This is just where my heart is,” Willis said. “It’s an awesome ministry.”
In fact, “awesome” is a frequently-used word by volunteers at the Athens center. When asked about his experience volunteering at the drop-off center for the first time, “awesome” is the first thing that comes to Eric Booher’s mind.
“It’s nice to see people coming together for the greater good to help those who are less fortunate,” Booher, who lives in Athens, added.
Willis loves her role with OCC so much that she’s applied to be sent to deliver boxes personally in May, something she said is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Volunteers usually don’t travel overseas to deliver the boxes, but Samaritan’s Purse will choose a few to make the trip to commemorate the 100 million box milestone, she said.
When the group holds volunteer conventions, a person who received a box from OCC as a child is often invited to speak, Willis said. One year, a recipient now living in the United States told volunteers she kept every candy wrapper she’d received in case she were never to have candy again.
The children who receive the boxes, Willis said, are so happy to receive “the things kids here take advantage of.”
 
How to pack a shoebox
Operation Christmas Child relay centers have boxes available for pickup and use, but standard-size shoeboxes and similarly sized plastic containers may also be used. Wrapping is not required, but is allowed as long as the lid is wrapped separately.
The next step is to choose whether the gift is for a boy or a girl, and for which age category - from 2-4 years old, 5-9 years old or 10-14 years old. Labels indicating the gender and age category can be printed from the Operation Christmas Child website at www.samaritanspurse.org.
Suggested items for the shoebox include small toys, stuffed animals, school supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bar soap, combs, washcloths, other hygiene items, candy, gum, T-shirts, socks and toy jewelry. A note to the child who will receive the box may also be included, but is optional.
War-related toys are not allowed because many of the boxes go to children in war-torn countries, Fairchild said. Chocolate, non-candy food, liquids, lotions, medications, vitamins, aerosol cans and breakable items are also not allowed.
Items removed from the boxes at OCC’s processing centers are donated to other organizations that could use them, Fairchild said.
After the box is filled, volunteers recommending securing the closed box with a rubber band. Boxes may then be dropped off at the closest centers, which are open until Monday.
The Athens Wesleyan Church, located on Wilawana Road in Athens Township, will collect boxes from 2 to 5 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. to noon Monday.
Collection sites are also open in Towanda and Troy. The Community Alliance Church, located off Route 220 in Towanda, will accept boxes between 1 and 6 p.m. today and from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday. The drop-off center at the Fellowship Bible Church on Mud Creek Road in Troy will be open from 9 a.m. to noon today and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday.
If you can’t make it to a collection site by Monday, the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in Boone, N.C. accepts shoeboxes year-round. Completed boxes may be mailed to Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Christmas Child, 801 Bamboo Road, Boone, NC 28607.
Cash donations, which are used to pack additional boxes, are also accepted online at samaritanspurse.org, Willis said.