CRESTVIEW — Area churches and organizations are in the final stages of Operation Christmas Child collections.

OCC, a Samaritan's Purse International Relief program, involves sending shoeboxes of Christmas presents and information on Christianity to needy children around the world.

Kenny Hancock, Emmanuel Baptist Church’s children's pastor, said EBC started handing out boxes Oct. 2. Of 400 empty boxes volunteers picked up, 347 were filled.

Emmanuel annually participates in the event, Hancock said.

"We have moms and dads and their kids go out together and fill boxes for families they've never even met … I have kids coming in smiling every single Sunday to turn in a box. It's really nice to see," Hancock said.

"The kids come to realize that giving is a very important part of their faith. Every child that receives a box from them will also get to hear the gospel of Jesus in every country that they live. They get to experience the love of Jesus from a person they've never met, in a country they've never been to."

‘IT’S JUST A BLESSING’

More boxes will be turned into Joy Fellowship Church, another OCC drop-off location.

Rick Watkins, of Joy Fellowship, said he and his wife, Gina, asked church pastor Dale Walters to start the program there five years ago.

"It's just a blessing to us. The potential's just unlimited. We like to say, 'We count the boxes, but God has made that box. God knows the child that box is going to go to already.'”

Over the years, Watkins has heard about the program's results from shoebox recipients who visited the area.

"It's amazing, the stories you hear about a child opening a box and it's exactly what they prayed for or exactly what they needed," he said.

One recipient, a native of the country of Panama, now lives in Kentucky. The man still has the OCC shoebox he received when he was 6 years old.

"Children cannot go to school in a lot of countries unless they have their own school supplies. He didn't know anything about Christ, and a friend took him to church the next day and he got a shoebox with all the school supplies he needed," Watkins said.

REMEMBERING ALL CHILDREN

If donors don't have an age preference, Watkins and his wife recommend preparing boxes for 14-year-olds who get the fewest shoeboxes out of all age groups.

"Fourteen is the cutoff because internationally it tends to be at the age of 15 that children in orphanages are put out on the street. That is why it's important to get a shoe box to them and put Christ in their lives," Watkins said.

They're also important because in addition to fun items like toys, boxes for those teenagers can include flashlights, screwdrivers, sewing materials, scissors and other items the children can use to start a trade and support themselves and their families.

That shoebox may be the only gift a child ever receives.

"A child doesn't get a shoebox every year. They only ever get one shoebox. The majority of these children have never gotten anything in their lives," Watkins said.

‘THEY’RE SO WILLING TO GIVE’

As part of the OCC Emerald Coast Team, Joy Fellowship is the final stop for Crestview, Okaloosa and Walton collections, and after the last boxes are received Nov. 21, volunteers load them onto a trailer and ship them to a relay center in Atlanta.

The church averages about 400 boxes on busy days like Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a little less on other collection days.

"I would say over (Nov. 14-15), we just broke 1,000 … If all goes well, if all of our churches fill this semi up, we should have approximately 12,000…," Watkins said.

He said one of the program's benefits is seeing "the generosity of people. They're so willing to give. How something as simple as a shoebox can make a big impact on a person's life. It's not much, but it means the world to that child on the other end," Watkins said.

Emmanuel's last OCC boxes were delivered Nov. 13 to Joy Fellowship Church, but area residents have until Nov. 21 to turn them in at First Baptist Church of Crestview or Joy Fellowship.

Collections are accepted 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Nov. 21 at First Baptist Church of Crestview, 171 W. Hickory Ave. Randall Jenkins at First Baptist said someone will be in the foyer during church service times Sunday to accept boxes.

Hours are 10 a.m. to noon Nov. 21 at Joy, 5978 Old Bethel Road, Crestview.

See the Samaritan's Purse website, https://www.samaritanspurse.org, for more information about Operation Christmas Child.