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Operation Christmas Child in Southern Maryland has come a long way since it was introduced in the area almost a decade ago.

But then again, the first year it kicked off was pretty successful, said Melissa Weikel, the program’s area coordinator.

Shoeboxes are filled with toys, toiletries and school supplies and delivered by volunteers and staff of Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child, a Christian organization that provides aid to people around the world.

“The first year we collected 3,000 boxes,” she said. “It was way more than we thought we’d collect.”

Since then, the number of boxes has bumped up each year.

And volunteers are more than willing to help.

“Our motto is ‘Just one more,’” Weikel said. “It’s like potato chips.”

Last year, the local group collected 10,531 boxes. This year it is setting the goal of having 12,000 boxes dropped off at designated collection sites during the week of Nov. 18.

Operation Christmas Child was founded in 1993.

An average cardboard shoebox will do or a plastic storage bin about the size of a shoebox works, too.

Veteran volunteers and packers shop throughout the year, taking advantage of school supply clearance sales and other deep discounts on toys, toiletries and anything else children might get a kick out of.

Larry and Ellen Peed of Waldorf were introduced to Operation Christmas Child by their daughter Marsha, who heard about it at her church in Fairfax, Va.

For years the Peeds have been volunteering with the Southern Maryland group, each year packing more and more.

Ellen was going to pack 10 boxes this year but had a bunch of stuff left over.

“Pack another box,” Larry reasoned. So she did.

This year Ellen is adding handmade hair bands to the shoeboxes, made on a loom that Larry created. During the year, they find deals on small calculators (finding some for less than 50 cents at Office Depot), T-shirts at Wal-Mart and school supplies on sale after the back-to-school rush subsides.

The gifts are delivered all over the world to children living in the slums of South America, Africa, Russia and other areas. Ten countries participate in making the boxes, Weikel said.

The ones she doled out in Africa came from the United Kingdom, evident from the prevalence of items featuring an image of the Union Jack flag.

During a spring visit to Uganda to hand out the shoeboxes, Weikel said she saw the extreme poverty that families live in and learned that the Operation Christmas Child gift is sometimes the only present a child has ever been given.

She had a special connection with Muhumuza, a 14-year-old boy from Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Every shoebox is supposed to include a handwritten note from the giver, Muhumuza ripped apart his gift looking for the correspondence, which was missing.

Remembering his disappointment, Weikel now ensures all the shoeboxes from Southern Maryland have a note. It’s a personal touch that means a lot, she said.

“It’s hard to put into words what this means,” Weikel said. “It gives them hope.

“For these kids, it’s so much more than a present. It’s hope,” she said.

Muhumuza also left an impression on Weikel when he gave her a gift from his shoebox.

Here was a kid who had next to nothing giving her a gift.

She begged off at first, but after he insisted, she accepted and told him that she would treasure it and tell everyone about his kindness.

The trip to Uganda might be the only one Weikel will take to deliver the gifts in person.

Her husband Ken and John Flatley, both operators of Charles County Chick-fil-A restaurants, will travel to Colombia, South America, in January to hand out shoeboxes.

The trips show the final result of the shopping trips and packing parties.

“I was very honored to do it,” Weikel said.

The mother of five, she said that her kids realize how easy they have it and jump at the chance to help with shopping and packing boxes and help whenever they can.

Nathan, 18, Jacob, 16, Anna, 12, Sarah, 9, and Caleb, 8, don’t even have to ask anymore — if they see that Target’s $1 section has items on clearance, one of them turns around and grabs another shopping cart, knowing they are clearing out the place.

Back at home, the dining room turns into an Operation Christmas Child warehouse of sorts until it’s time to start making boxes.

The Weikel family packed 12 boxes this year the reason being, Weikel said, that she would rather take the items to packing parties to make more boxes.

The Wathens of Mechanicsville, including parents John and Kenda with their kids Sophie, 11, Samuel, 8, and Susannah, 2, have been participating in Operation Christmas Child for about nine years. It’s a good way to kick off the holiday season and teaches the children that not all their peers are as blessed as they are, Kenda said.

“It helps them appreciate what they have,”she said. “It’s a good way to start the Christmas season — to give before we get.”

Sophie sums up her reason for looking forward to packing a shoebox or two.

“God blesses us,” she said. “And we should bless others.”

staylor@somdnews.com