COLUMBIA — Jennifer Claybrooks is learning that a shoebox can hold more than apparel. It can be an extension of spirituality.
On the floor of her room lies a pink Mudd box that Claybrooks, 19, has chosen to be the special one. Although she has put together hundreds of boxes through her volunteer work with Samaritan's Purse, she chose to fill this one on her own time. Some choose to wrap them in tissue paper, but the vivid pink seems to speak for itself.
A sturdy suitcase rests on her bed, empty except for a poncho, jacket and capris.
“It’s the rainy season down there,” Claybrooks said before leaving Wednesday for Panama.
Snuggled inside the Mudd shoebox is a blue- and green-handled jump rope, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a hair brush, paper dolls, pens, pencils, crayons, markers and a spring-themed coloring book with flowers and Easter eggs on the cover. A purple teddy bear is nudged in the corner, about 10 inches tall with fuzzy fur.
This set of handpicked items awaits an 11-year-old girl in Panama whom Claybrooks hasn’t met yet. In fact, she doesn’t even know her name. But the MU student, originally from Wichita, Kan., will present this gift to the unsuspecting girl before the week is out.
Through a trip sponsored by Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, Claybrooks will join 17 others teenagers from around the country in providing friendship and aid to underprivileged children in the San Blas islands of Panama. Last year a separate delegation went to Ecuador.
Claybrooks is a chemical engineering major at MU. Her mother became involved in the international relief efforts of Samaritan’s Purse through Metro East Baptist Church in Wichita, where Claybrooks and her siblings Jessica and Ryan also attend.
Since then, Claybrooks and her siblings have all volunteered with the program. Claybrooks herself has been working at her town’s collection center since she was in sixth grade.
“It’s become a family adventure to pack the shoebox items each year,” Claybrooks said. "They’ve all learned how you do it to make the most items fit.”The Wichita collection center where Claybrooks volunteers collected about 18,000 shoeboxes last year.
Year round, Claybrooks will keep an eye out for sales at grocery stores, and, particularly during back-to-school season, when school supplies are cheap, she might purchase 400 sets of crayons to include in her boxes. Hygiene items, toys, clothing and hard candy are often included as well.
Claybrooks’ mother is the South Central Kansas coordinator and helps run the Wichita collection center. At the Columbia collection center, where Claybrooks has also spent time, almost 6,000 boxes went out last year.
Claybrooks worked at the processing center in Denver last November. Churches and smaller relay centers drop off filled boxes year-round at the local collection centers, although most boxes are collected right before Thanksgiving.
Volunteers such as Claybrooks put rubber bands on them, take inventory and put them on a shipping truck. The boxes are sent to one of six larger processing centers in the nation that inspect the cartons for safety. Then the boxes are sent to more than 100 countries.
“Three or four years ago someone came up with the idea to use Rubbermaid containers instead because the shoeboxes can get wet or ruined,” Claybrooks said. "I’ve heard stories that some kids will use Rubbermaid boxes to get water as a device to carry it from Point A to Point B. Some centers offer boxes you can fold and send out, but regular shoe boxes are the most popular.”
Claybrooks has not met her fellow delegates or the Kuna children she will befriend. She is not concerned though, because she has previous mission experience working with the Baptist Student Union at MU and Coyote Hill.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the miracles and the children’s reactions,” Claybrooks said. “You can’t really say God’s not at work. The possibility of this happening without God’s direction is impossible.”
The children, boys and girls from 5 to 12 years old, are arranged into three groups for distribution. Claybrooks chose her special box for a girl in the 11-year-old age group because there aren’t always enough for every child in each group, she said.
Alongside each shoebox is a booklet provided by the organization. It describes the story of salvation in the children’s native language.
Rachael Mills, community relations assistant manager at the Samaritan’s Purse North Carolina headquarters, said that the booklets are printed in more than 70 languages. Featured cartoons are tailored to be sensitive to children of particular cultures. The evangelical international relief organization doesn’t proselytize, she said, but hopes to have the chance to show children that Jesus Christ loves them.
“That’s what motivates us to do what we do, and we hope for the opportunity to be able to share our faith with them,” Mills said. She recalls an instance when the staff was dismayed after discovering that a young boy had been given a box filled with only socks. It turned out the boy was a burn victim and was overjoyed by the gift; he could walk without pain.
Operation Christmas Child began in 1993 and is the largest ministry of Samaritan’s Purse. For nearly thirty years, American evangelist Franklin Graham has been the President and Chairman of the Board of the organization. It has collected more than 69 million boxes and has provided them in more than 100 countries, including the U.S. In addition, the discipleship program offers youth a chance to participate in the relief effort.
“For me, a lot of my faith is based on who God is and the things he does,” Claybrooks said. “This is a way to show others what he means to me.”
She plans to communicate this meaning to children by spending time with them and their families, and each day there is group devotional time. The group will also give a presentation at Amigos de Metro, a children’s home in Panama City. Although she is not sure exactly what she and the other delegates will discuss, the topic will likely center around the Samaritan’s Purse and its evangelism efforts.
Mills said that the children aren't obligated to take the booklet along with their gift, and it's their choice whether they attend the discipleship presentation. According to the group's website, the mission is to demonstrate God's love in "a tangible way," but Mills maintains that the main goal is to help children feel loved and lead a better life. .
When she returns to the U.S., Claybrooks hopes to promote the program’s philanthropic efforts by giving a presentation on a local TV or radio station, which Wichita churches have done in the past.
At the end of the day, the efforts of Operation Christmas Child are centrally geared toward improving the lives of children. The Kuna children may be ready to go to school,Claybrooks said, but the only thing preventing this is a lack of supplies. With the boxes, children might open them up and find everything they need to participate in school, or they might open a box to find a pair of shoes or a shirt that fits perfectly.
“The stories are amazing. I pray that I’m able to see a miracle like that,” Claybrooks said.