Christmas is coming. Colorful lights aren't up, the ground's still snow-free, but Operation Christmas Child, a seven-year Juneau tradition, has completed another Christmas-gift drive.
"Operation Christmas Child targets kids that really are needy, that don't even normally see a Christmas gift," said Kristen Hock, who has assembled packages for the program for five years.
She joined with about 25 other volunteers on Saturday at Chapel by the Lake to pack shoe boxes full of presents for shipment to Anchorage. From there, the packages will be sent to Kamchatka, an Eastern Russian peninsula almost directly across the Pacific from Southeast Alaska.
Geographically, Alaska and Kamchatka have much in common. Residents of Alaska and Kamchatka live with the constant presence of bears, traditionally rely on salmon for a portion of their diet, enjoy a population density of less than one person per square kilometer, and deal with a harsh climate.
Economically, though, Kamchatkans aren't as fortunate as most Alaskans. Acquiring the basic necessities of life, let alone Christmas presents, can be a challenge. Residents of Juneau and the rest of Alaska have sent Christmas presents to Russians in a yearly event called Operation Christmas Child.
The operation has become a Juneau tradition. Every church in the community, as well as Girl Scout troops, offices and individuals provided presents for the shoe boxes, said Mary Carson, one of the five women on the project's organizing team. Throughout last week donors delivered the loaded shoe boxes to Chapel by the Lake, where they were packed into larger boxes and delivered to Alaska Marine Lines on Saturday.
AML is donating the shipping fees to Anchorage; World Wide Movers donated trucks to get the gifts from Chapel by the Lake to AML; the Juneau Empire and the Chapel Ladies, a women's group from Chapel by the Lake, donated packing supplies; and the Hudson Shoe Store gave shoe boxes, said Hock.
The national program is organized by Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief organization that sends the present-filled shoe boxes to more than 90 countries worldwide. Gifts from Alaska are sent to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Kamchatka's capital. From there, the gifts are distributed to more remote villages via snowmachine and dog sled.
The boxes contain small toys, school supplies, personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, and hard candy. Because Alaska's boxes go to a cold climate, donors often include hats and mittens in the boxes, Carson said.
Also included in the boxes is Christian evangelical material from Samaritan's Purse.
"They send the message of Christmas in the box," said Hock. She is a member of Chapel by the Lake, and said she appreciates the Christian message as well as the simplicity of the giving.
Carson appreciates the simplicity as well.
"So often when we give gifts to our American friends and families, we have to rack our brains for ideas," she said. "But we don't have to do that here. We can pack boxes full of simple things that are still received with joy."
Carson first heard of the program from a friend who told her of a child crying with joy upon receiving a box of crayons.
"We don't even give crayons to our kids because they're so commonplace," she said. "Just knowing that a child cried over it, it makes it worth it."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.