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'To them, it's a million bucks:' Newmarket volunteer knows shoebox campaign brings hope to children

Heather Gonsalves has donated more than 1,000 shoeboxes filled with school supplies, toys, clothes and hygiene products to children in need as part of Samaritan's Purse's Operation Christmas Child — and she could use your help now

Newmarket’s Heather Wilson Gonsalves knows the value in the little things — a box of coloured pencils, a pair of warm socks, a fresh toothbrush, and, even, an empty shoebox.

For the past 12 years, she’s tirelessly collected all manner of products: school supplies, toys, clothes, accessories, hygiene products, and more. Sometimes, Gonsalves’ efforts mean saving the free crayons given at restaurants like Swiss Chalet, keeping the unopened toys from her and her son’s McDonald’s Happy Meals, and buying out racks of clothes when local stores post blockbuster sales. All in all, Gonsalves’ volunteer work is a full-time job.

But as a committed volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse’s Operation Christmas Child, Gonsalves knows the year-round effort of collecting as much product as possible means more children in need receive special care, love, and assistance over the holidays.

So, too, does she know the impact a single shoebox can bring.

“The things we take for granted — Q Tips, soaps, combs, crayons — to them, is like getting an Apple computer or a cellphone here,” said Heather Wilson Gonsalves. “Sometimes when I make the boxes I’m crying, because this is simple to us, but to them it’s a million bucks. We take too much for granted.”

Every year, volunteers across Canada like Gonsalves fill empty shoeboxes with a range of supplies and gifts geared toward boys and girls between the ages of two to 14. Filled shoeboxes are collected by local churches and volunteer groups the third week of November and shipped to a processing centre where they undergo rigorous checks for items that are not accepted, like food, liquids, war-related items (toy guns, military figurines, knives, camouflage clothing), gambling items (dice), and breakables (glass).

From there, they’re shipped to more than 100 countries and distributed to communities and children living amid poverty, disease, war and natural disaster. Last year, Canadian shoeboxes benefited struggling children across West Africa and Central America

Since 1993, the initiative’s inaugural year, more than 187 million children in more than 100 countries have received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. In 2020 alone, more than 9.1 million shoebox gifts were collected around the world, with 373,000 shoeboxes filled by Canadians alone.

Samaritan’s Purse encourages volunteers to include a personal note in each shoebox. To further impart a message of love, each box and future recipient is prayed for before the former is shipped out.

Samaritan’s Purse also welcomes $10-per-box donations, which cover shipping and other program costs.

“Because of volunteers, millions of children around the world get that taste of hope that somebody cares about them,” said Frank King, news media relations manager with Samaritan’s Purse Canada. “And, from our perspective as a Christian organization, that God has not forgotten them in whatever challenging situation they’re going through.”

With more than 1,000 shoeboxes donated to date and funded almost entirely by herself and her son, Brayden, who volunteers his pocket money,  Gonsalves’ personal 12-year tradition is now facing some challenges.

With the financial impact of COVID-19, she has struggled to meet her goal of 60 boxes a year. Currently short supplies for 30 of those 60 boxes, Gonsalves is appealing to the community for donations of unworn clothing, makeup bags, hygiene products and coloured pencils. She encourages the community to reach out to her via Facebook by Nov. 10.

“Knowing you’re giving a child their first doll, or first pair of shoes, that’s the best part of it,” said Gonsalves.

Filled shoeboxes can be mailed year-round to:

Operation Christmas Child
Samaritan’s Purse Canada
20 Hopewell Way NE
Calgary, AB T3J 5H5

“We always put a letter in, with a photograph of our family. We put our address on the back… ” said Gonsalves. “We’ve got six photographs from different families over the 12 years.”