Spreading good cheer … in a box

Lake Placid church volunteers lift holiday spirits with gifts

Every year, Dave Hatch helps package hundreds of cheer boxes to be shipped around the world in time for Christmas. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

LAKE PLACID — The Christmas season never ends for Dave Hatch. As the director of Mountain View Bible Church’s “cheer box” program, he spends 365 days a year thinking about holiday presents to send to children around the world — and if those presents will fit into a shoebox.

“Last week everything was handed in, so now we start collecting for next year,” Hatch said. “We work on it year-round. It’s amazing, and people are so giving, it’s unreal.”

Around 20 years ago, the church — then called Pilgrim Holiness Church — began participating in Operation Christmas Child, which is organized by Samaritan’s Purse International Relief, a nondenominational Christian organization that sends aid around the world. The “cheer boxes” are shoeboxes provided by Samaritan’s Purse that groups fill with goods to send to children in low-income, war-torn or disaster-stricken countries. There are three categories of boxes: 2-4 years old, 5-9 years old and 10-14 years old.

“These are going to kids that have nothing. I mean, if you see some of the videos come back, the kids actually cry because they can’t believe what they’re getting,” Hatch said. “(Samaritan’s Purse) sends them all around the world, wherever there’s catastrophe — fire, flood, whatever.”

The organization has sent out around 200 million boxes since the project’s inception in 1993 and currently average around 11 million shoeboxes each year. Mountain View’s program contributed more than 1,000 boxes to that tally this holiday season, a significant increase from the 16 boxes the congregation contributed during its first year participating in the project. Hatch does not take credit for the steady growth of the church’s donations, though he has played a large part in directing the program. Instead, he said his granddaughter, Anika, was the one who spearheaded the effort.

“When I first started, we did 16 (boxes) our first year. Then we did about 40,” Hatch said. “Then my granddaughter got involved, and leave it to girls — I mean, she wasn’t that old, she’s only 16 now — but when she got involved, she started saying, ‘We have to do more boxes, Papa.’ So I think she went up to 100 that year, then the next year was 200. Well, every year, she increases it. Makes me nervous. Two years ago we did 700, then last year she said, ‘We’ve got to do 1,000.’ So we did — we had 1,027. So this year we shot for 1,100; we did 1,111 boxes.”

The cheer boxes have become a year-round task for Anika, too. While visiting Florida, recently, she called Hatch to tell him that she’d found some items for next year’s boxes.

“She calls me last week and says, ‘Papa, I have some things for next year already.’ She found some soap, she found a bunch of school paper,” Hatch said. “She knows the prices. She’s really sharp.”

Hatch’s boxes usually contain the same core items such school supplies, a washcloth, soap, a T-shirt and toys. There may be a hairbrush for the girls or a baseball glove for the boys. Every box, however, contains a Matchbox car — that was Anika’s doing, according to Hatch.

“My granddaughter said, ‘Papa, I like Matchbox cars, and the girls are getting them, too,'” he said.

At around $30-$50 per box, Hatch said the cost of filling so many boxes can become expensive. Donations from local organizations help offset the cost — the T-shirts, ball caps and medals that come in each one of Mountain View’s boxes are all donated by Ironman Lake Placid. Hatch also tries to shop sales all year long, and has found that local businesses are game to help him find low prices for a good cause.

“I already started collecting things (for next year) because, to buy (stuffed animals) now, they’re hard to find. You know, Beanie Babies, they’re tough to find,” he said. “I buy them in New York occasionally. I go to my other daughter’s in Pennsylvania and we go around to different stores, and some of the stores even around here, they know what I’m doing, so they’ll let me know when they have something on sale.”

Stuffed animals are one of the most important components of the cheer boxes — especially in the boxes meant for very young children. Hatch said that Samaritan’s Purse recommends including larger stuffed animals in those boxes, as the younger children may be especially in need of companionship.

“Some of these little children, they have no parents at all,” he said. “Some might have one parent. The first thing they’ll do (when they open the box) is grab that stuffed animal and they’ll just hug it and hold it.”

Mountain View’s congregation tackles the increasingly monumental tax of stuffing all its cheer boxes by holding what Hatch calls “packing parties” — people get together, assemble the Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes and stuff them with gifts. They usually get between 100 and 200 boxes done per party.

Afterward, they eat pizza together and enjoy one another’s company.

Hatch especially enjoys Anika’s company while putting together the boxes. He’s hoping that next year, now that Anika is 16, the two of them can travel down to Baltimore to volunteer at Project Samaritan’s warehouse where all of the boxes are inspected and prepared for international shipping.

“Girls, I’m telling you, they have the best interests,” he said. “They really do. You get them involved, there’s no stopping them.”

People who wish to donate to Mountain View’s cheer boxes project or assist at one of next year’s packing parties can reach out to Hatch at 518-637-2610 or the church through their website at www.mtviewbible.org for more information.

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