Sending help in a shoebox

David Bowlby of Hibben United Methodist Church in Mount Pleasant processes shoeboxes for the Operation Christmas Child program in Charlotte.

Every year for as long as she can remember, Katherine Rooney of Goose Creek has helped each of her two daughters fill a shoebox with small gifts and hygiene items.

Then they take them to one of the eight drop-off locations in the Lowcountry, where they are added to more than 25,000 other shoeboxes filled with gifts bound for kids who live in countries where their lives have been affected by poverty, war, famine and natural disasters.

"We feel good about doing something nice for needy kids," said Rooney, mother of Emma, 9, and Erin, 7. "But I admit that we've never really thought about what happens to the boxes after we drop them off."

Jennifer Roberts of Mount Pleasant knows the answer to that. For three years, she's been a volunteer with Operation Christmas Child, a program run by the nondenominational evangelical Christian organization Samaritan's Purse. Before that, she donated packed boxes each year.

Roberts is one of 50 volunteers locally who work on Operation Christmas Child year-round.

Thursday, Roberts and 15 other volunteers ages 20 to 70 took a bus from Hibben United Methodist Church in Mount Pleasant to the processing center in Charlotte. Roberts said she knows of several other area churches that make annual trips to the center, too.

There, the boxes are inspected to make sure the items inside are approved. If necessary, they remove items and replace them with something more suitable.

"We don't usually take anything out -- only if there's something inappropriate like liquids, chocolates and war toys," said Roberts. "Some of these kids see the real deal and they don't need war toys. But we don't mess with the integrity of the boxes."

Roberts says donors are encouraged to give toiletries and small toys.

"You can include whatever you want that you think a child would appreciate or enjoy," she said. "We've actually taken kids from our church out to the dollar store to buy stuff."

The boxes are marked by gender and age.

After the boxes are inspected, they are taped closed and load into cartons. The cartons are stacked onto containers.

And the containers?

They are driven back to Charleston, where they are loaded on cargo ships.

About 2 million of the 8.5 million boxes collected nationally are shipped out of the Port of Charleston. The rest go out from Long Beach, Calif., New Orleans, New York and Savannah.

"I didn't realize how many boxes came through Charleston," said Roberts. "It makes a lot of sense, though, because the main processing center is in Charlotte and the Good Samaritan headquarters is in Boone (North Carolina). They have a very heavy presence in the Carolinas."

Since the mid-1990s, more than 15 million shoe boxes have passed through Charleston's port.

Boxes that leave through Charleston are bound for one of 22 countries, according to Operation Christmas Child. They go to places such as Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Lithuania.

"We take extra care when we have containers from Operation Christmas Child," said Manlio Linaldeddu, export VIP manager of Mediterranean Shipping Co. (USA) Inc. "We don't want to have hiccups in the logistics. We are really glad to be able to help with this."

So far, 24 containers have shipped out this year. They will continue until the end of January.

"It will take approximately 40 days to get to their destination," he said. "From what I understand, they don't really need to have them arrive by Christmas. They collect during the Christmas season because people are more willing to give now. It is really amazing how many boxes can be delivered around the world."