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North Bend churches help children from struggling countries get Christmas gifts

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NORTH BEND - This Christmas a large batch of shoe boxes from North Bend will go on an elaborate journey to make their way into the hands of children.

Through channels in canoes, on parachutes dropped from planes, in the baskets of bicycles and on the backs of camels, they will bring a happy surprise to youth in areas of devastation and poverty.

A local collection site for the national Operation Christmas Child program in North Bend recently shipped some 1,500 gift-wrapped shoe boxes full of small presents to children in warring or disadvantaged countries.

The drive was started by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, to bring Christmas to children any way it could.

North Bend Community Church and Cascade Convenient Church worked together to rally North Bend residents to participate and also serve as the major Eastside collection hub for Operation Christmas Child. Folks from Issaquah and elsewhere around the region have dropped off gifts to be later transported to the Seattle collection site. The boxes are collected at sites all over the country, then shipped to California before going overseas.

"Every child in the warring areas of Iraq will get a box," said Tricia Howland, who has been helping Operation Christmas Child efforts at North Bend Community Church. "Not only will the gifts reach children in warring nations, but also third-world countries, orphanages, areas affected by AIDS and other desperate, horrendous situations."

Last year, 6 million boxes were delivered to children in 56 countries.

Holland said inside the boxes are items most American kids wouldn't consider to be very good Christmas presents such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, Halloween candy, crayons, jump ropes, marbles, Beanie Babies and other small toys. Boxes are put together specifically for boys or girls in three different age categories: 2-4, 5-9 and 10-14.

Operation Christmas Child asks families to gives boxes filled with items appropriate for children the same age as those in their homes.

"It's amazing what will fit in there," Howland said. "There's always candy and a Beanie Baby in every one. It's been a passion of mine over the years that no box leaves without a Beanie Baby. My mom died when I was little and a stuffed animal was all I had from her."

The boxes will be delivered to children in countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America, Central America, Africa and Asia. Though it may not seem like much, the little boxes deliver a lot of happiness to children who might not receive anything else for Christmas.

"The main point was that there are so many kids everywhere and the majority of them are basically dying, they go to hospitals, but not to have a shot. They go to the hospital to die," Howland said.

Howland and her family have helped with the effort for nearly seven years now. She said it was first her children's idea to put stuffed animals in the boxes.

"My children gave away all their stuffed animals, that's how it started. We looked at each box that came through and they were sad there were no stuffed animals in them," she said. "They went to their rooms and picked out stuffed animals to put in."

But eventually they ran out and as stuffed animals are expensive to purchase, Holland asked her church's congregation to help. A woman with a collection of 400 Beanie Babies stepped up.

"It's amazing someone would have 400 Beanie Babies. She donated 175 last year and 200 this year and said she will give more if we need them," Howland said.

Local elementary schools have been assisting in the effort. Last year Opstad Elementary put together 46 boxes. This year they doubled that amount and got some help from Snoqualmie Elementary. Next year North Bend Elementary will help, too.

"It's just a matter of word of mouth," Howland said. "I'm amazed at how many come out of the little North Bend area."

Holland said she is devoted to Operation Christmas Child because unlike many other Christmas charity drives, this one includes the biblical meaning of Christmas, Jesus Christ's birth, by including a little booklet telling about the first Christmas in the child's language inside each box.

"It's the only giving organization I know of that represents Christmas and tells why we're doing this and who we're celebrating," Howland said. "That's the coolest thing."

* The boxes are now on the trucks making their way to Seattle, but it's not too late to help. Operation Christmas Child still needs donations for shipping. If interested in helping, call (800) 353-5949.

Staff Writer Melissa Kruse can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at melissa.kruse@valleyrecord.com.

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