Friday, June 30, 2023

Getting Carded


"Sometimes things are just hard..." wrote my prayer team member to me in a text less than an hour ago. Truer words were never spoken.

This will be our 15th year to do a large community packing party, and I have always felt bad that we didn't have a letter to include in each box. We hear so often from shoebox recipients of how they are blessed by having a letter and picture from the person who packed their box. It seems to give them a connection and feeling of being loved by someone they've never met. Since we pack thousands of boxes, handwritten notes aren't possible, and in past years I've hesitated to spend the money that could be spent on shoebox contents and shipping donations to invest in letters.

This year, though, I had a stronger feeling than ever before that this was important. I investigated both online printing options and a local company and found the online company to be about half the cost. As further confirmation, one of my team members offered to split the cost with me, and the plan to order 25,000 postcards with a picture on one side and a simple printed greeting on the other was finalized.

Then...we had to make plans for a picture. A key team member was on a mission trip until Wednesday of this week, and we had a promo code for 20% off with the online printing company that ended on Friday. Thursday was our only opportunity to get this shot. I sent out a few emails and invited team members to join us at Presque Isle, our local state park on Lake Erie. 

We recruited an amateur photographer, God blessed us with perfect weather, and we had the shots completed in short order last night. That was the easy part.

I liked the photo pictured here, but this is a cropped version. The original had more scenery around it, so I cropped it out. Because I'm so techno-deficient, I didn't realize that would mess with the resolution of the photo. I struggled for hours last evening to figure out how to get this picture uploaded into the printing company's site and finally got it done at 2:30 am. As my friend said, "Sometimes things are just hard."

Then this morning I got an email from the printing company telling me the photo was small and blurry and asking for the original photo. I replied and attached what I thought was the original, but the very patient Michael from Blockbuster Printing responded promptly (and kindly) to tell me it was the same exact photo. Could I please get an original with better resolution? As I said, "Sometimes things are just hard."

I contacted the photographer who was kind enough to promptly send me the original, and I forwarded it to Michael along with an apology and an explanation of how we were including these in our Operation Christmas Child boxes. I also sent a few desperate texts to our prayer team asking for prayer over this.

Maybe it's just that I've had a couple of nights with only a few hours of sleep that made me a bit overemotional, but I teared up when I read Michael's reply, "Perfection, this one is great. I will size correctly for you and send to print. These will be done by next week. Thank you so much again and best of luck on your generous efforts. We hope all goes well for you. We are rooting for you! Keep up that wonderful spirit, Kathy and happy 4th of July as well." Wow!

I wrote back to Michael and explained how he was an answer to prayer and told him how much his patience, kindness, and encouragement meant to me today. Maybe we both needed a little encouragement, because, after all, "Sometimes things are just hard."

But, by God's grace, our boxes will  have cards with a picture and encouraging message in them this year. And, though sometimes things are just hard, they are also worth the effort. Getting carded was worth it. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Let It Undo You


In today's sermon about God's love as expressed by Paul in Romans 8:35-39, Pastor Derek said our response to the matchless love of God should be to "Let it undo you!" 

So I am breaking 8 months of blogging silence to record some of the ways I am undone by His love today.

I've been convicted over the past year or two of my lack of intentionality in observing a Sabbath. Unfortunately, I haven't acted on that conviction in any regular way, but yesterday I felt compelled to get all the piles of stuffed animals off the living room floor and all the stacks of shoebox clothing stored so I could really rest on this Sunday. What a difference it made to wake up and see my freshly vacuumed living room floor sans those piles!

As I searched this Sabbath afternoon for ways to recount manifestations of God's love for me, I grabbed a journal from my bookshelf that I wrote in 2008-2009. A few hours of reading the lines I wrote in the early morning hours of the days that year gave me lots of revelations.

It was a year of transition as we left the church I attended for 56 years and looked for a new church home. I recorded how I continued going back to that church basement and packing shoeboxes and how God allowed me to finish 7,272 boxes that year with the help of our OCC team and friends. I had no idea what the future would hold; on 11/19/08 I wrote, "I don't know if we'll ever pack that many again, but I praise You, God, for all these gospel opportunities that You've provided."

Day after day and week after week I recorded all my angst--my besetting sins of overeating and procrastination and irritability, and my inability to use my time as wisely as I wanted to for the Lord. And I realized in many ways those journal entries of 14 years ago mirror my current journal writings. I still struggle with the same sins; I still have much of the same angst. But God hasn't changed, and for some unfathomable reason He is still in love with me. Tears fill my eyes this moment as I think about it. 

Some things have changed, though. As I read my thoughts from 14 years ago I see I was concerned about spending too much money on shoeboxes, yet it was only a fraction of what God's provided for me to spend now. I wondered if we'd ever be able to pack as many boxes ever again as we packed in 2008...and now we regularly pack more than three times that many! 

I've been thinking lately about how tired I feel, but I see from this journal that I constantly complained 14 years ago about being tired. I hope this means that in 2037, if the Lord tarries, I'll still be complaining about being tired but also still carrying on by God's grace and with all the help He gives to get His will done--whatever that is in 2037. I'm not sure I'll ever be as positive as cheery Caleb of the Old Testament who insisted he was as strong at age 80 as he was 40 years earlier, because positivity has never been my strength, but who knows? God may do that miracle, too. 

I'm definitely taking this day off from making decisions, but in the next two days we'll be finalizing dates and preliminary details for our 2023 big shoebox packing party. In addition to perusing old journals today I've been looking over lists of all the items God's given us over these years since our first large packing party in 2009. I'll tell you, it's astounding.

On 7/08/09 I had a phone call with Joey White from OCC, and he asked if we'd consider doing a special large packing party. I had no experience, but the church I'd then recently started attending came around me to get that job done. God knew I needed that support! He worked out every detail and only 10 weeks later, on 9/26/09, we had 150 volunteers who got 5,577 boxes packed in under four hours. Only God! 

Year by year He keeps extending His grace over every roadblock to make this happen. Lord willing, this will be our 15th packing party, and we've packed over 304,000 more boxes since I wrote that journal in 2008. I stand amazed at what He does every year. 

Sometimes I just need to sit back. And breathe. And remember. And let it undo me. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

Ready For Action

 Round two! More loading and unloading of trucks. More tables set up. More prepping of items and arranging them on tables. And...we're ready to go again.

We worked hard on Friday and made stops at four different storage areas to get all our items to First Alliance Church. There was another neat way God saved us some work. By His grace I'd been in the container two weeks before and as God prompted me to take a count of washcloths and toothbrushes I realized we wouldn't have enough for all the boxes in this packing session. I was able to order more of each. The toothbrushes arrived promptly, but this week we still hadn't received the washcloths. On Thursday I communicated with the seller and found they'd been delivered to Birkmire (the trucking company where we rent our container) a week ago. On Friday when we were there to load our other items they were able to use the fork lift to bring them to us and we loaded the ones we need for this week and put the rest into the container for storage. It was great I didn't have to go up there earlier when they arrived and load them myself! ThankYou, Lord! 

We organized and got things set up so by that evening we were ready for Aaron to pick up the slippers from the warehouse that was generously storing them. God provided just the right number of volunteers to get them unloaded and placed along the walls. Thank You, Lord!

But when I counted the cartons I realized we were short almost 1600 pairs of slippers. I had a sleepless night trying to figure out what happened. I wasn't at the warehouse when the slippers were loaded but I told them to leave 12 pallets of them behind in the warehouse. I was thinking there were 8 cartons on each pallet and didn't realize that this load had pallets with 12 or even more cartons on them! We figured this out and I was able to get a truck to go back to the warehouse and get 68 more cartons of slippers back to First Alliance. I'm so glad we didn't find that out during this week. Thank You, Lord! 

So...we're ready for action! Bring on the volunteers and let the packing begin! 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Packing Number One Is Done


After months of uncertainty, hundreds of decisions, and many hours of preparation our first 2022 shoebox packing session is done. Not including setup, we planned to be in the building for five days--four days to pack the boxes and one day for cleanup.

By God's grace and because of so many excellent volunteers we finished packing all 11,200 boxes in 2.5 days. We worked another half day on Wednesday to start cleanup and finished on Thursday morning.

It was a good week--not without some hitches, of course, but a blessed week nonetheless. We were glad to have children and families join us again and loved watching them work so well together. 

I'm not sure how many cartons/boxes we had in the truck at the end of Monday night because a sudden storm came up and blew rain into the back of the truck so we had to quickly close it and pile cartons in the gym until Tuesday morning.

We did have that first truck filled and ready to pull by noon on Tuesday, though, and packed another 3400 after that to make a total of 9000 boxes by Tuesday night. The other 2,200 were filled on Wednesday by around 1:00 and the second truck was ready for its journey.

I want to praise God for so much answered prayer! We're grateful the high temperatures of Saturday and Monday (when we melted in the gym with no air conditioning) cooled off for Tuesday and Wednesday to make for much more pleasant packing. We could not have asked for a better and more flexible crew of volunteers to get this job done.

Last year the stress of managing volunteers left me frankly burned out and I was reluctant to face another set of packing parties this year. But God answered that need too when Ellen stepped up to take point on orienting and placing volunteers who always seemed to drift in one by one right after she'd given an orientation at the beginning of a shift. 

Having a larger facility was a true blessing. We had all our cartons, boxes, and supplies in the same area all at the same time. Granted, there was still a bit of chaos but people stepped up to break down all that cardboard when it was needed and pitched in to sweep up all those little pieces of red cardboard 'confetti' left from folding boxes and stock the tables at the end of every evening. 

Three of us worked this morning to finish cleaning and storing and were amazed when First Alliance offered to allow us to leave the things we need to use again in September right there in the gym. Praise God! 

Tonight I'm making calculations for September. I was a bit shocked to realize we still need another 165 reams of paper folded into packets of 15 sheets of paper each. I need to see if our paper folder Steve can complete that many in four weeks or we'll be farming that job out also. 

Still, despite the conflicts and challenges, there are 11,200 boxes on their way to Charlotte for the next leg of the journey. One down and only one more to go. 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

It's A Setup


Here we are again on Packing Party Eve. It's been a long road this year with lots of prayer and soul searching about whether we should even attempt to do a packing party this year. Just six months ago we had very few anchor items and no prospects for buying them on the horizon. Between that and some personal problems caused by my own sinful nature it seemed last year's 13th packing party might be the last.

Then in early February at our Area Coordinators' Planning Meeting we were singing "Oceans" during worship and I had an impression that we should not only have a packing party this year but we should pack 19,000 boxes. I still don't know if that will happen but God is getting us closer.

In the past six months God provided a new venue, more than 30,000 beautiful "Wow" items for boxes and another 37,000 stuffed animals. And while my personal sin problems won't be solved this side of heaven, I've recognized them, tried to confess them, and asked for prayer from everyone I can think of. 

I'd be lying if I said I am totally confident we will get to the end of this packing week with two trucks filled with packed shoe boxes and that I caused no offense to anyone. 

If anything the battle just keeps getting stronger. We have one packing party team member and her family totally out because of illness and one who has faithfully loaded our trucks for years is recovering from surgery and cannot lift. Because of work schedules and other issues we are down to a few team members who can manage volunteers, stock tables, load the truck, and keep up with cardboard disposal. 

But God has a habit of bringing unlikely people to come alongside us in unlikely ways. I hope I'll be telling you about some of them in my next 'victory' posts.

Meanwhile, because of the tireless work of some non-team volunteers yesterday all 8,000 baseball hats are out of their boxes. And...well...I'd say we have quite a few folded boxes ready to pack!

Catching Up


Writing. I haven't done it for some time. At least not on this blog. And tomorrow begins our official packing for 2022, so I thought I should catch up a bit on all the ways Jehovah Jireh has answered our prayers over the past three months or so.

First, the facility at Grace Church where we hosted our community-wide packing party since 2009 is constructing a video production studio in the area we used to use for packing boxes. By God's grace, at the end of April we were able to secure a new venue at First Alliance Church. This provides a larger space for us and the church was so accommodating in clearing their calendar for us to use their large gym. Unfortunately, it's not air conditioned so we're praying for cooler weather this coming week.

Then, on May 2nd, we received a truckload of items for our boxes. As always, we prayed hard about all the details of this delivery. This was the culmination of five months of steps orchestrated by our merciful God and brought us 19,000+ baseball hats, over 1,500 pairs of children's character slippers, and 6 pallets of miscellaneous fillers. Those pallets of fillers were a gamble but God provided over 2,000 stuffed animals as well as many fun toys on them. 

At the beginning of June God blessed us with the opportunity to buy more than 12,000 more pairs of children's slippers. That's more than we need for this year, but we didn't want to pass up the opportunity. We weren't sure how to get them shipped but ultimately Logistics Plus, a local shipping company, arranged the shipping for us at their cost and that saved us money in this crazy economy with gas prices soaring. 

We also weren't sure where we could store this latest truckload of slippers. Thank You, Lord, for providing the Danowskis to offer us space in their newly rented warehouse. I was out of town with our ministry coordinators at Operation Christmas Child recruitment training when the truck arrived on 6/18/22 but there were enough volunteers to get the job done and God even provided a man with a fork lift to unload the truck. A couple weeks later we needed to move the 9 pallets of large plush bunnies from that warehouse. I didn't know where we would put them so I put out a plea on Facebook and God provided what we needed! 

We were still praying for about 7,000-8,000 more stuffed animals for this year. God did "exceedingly, abundantly beyond", though, and Ellen found a contact to buy 27,000 from a man in Ohio who was selling the Beanie Baby collection amassed by his 90-year-old father who died this past May. Going to pick them up was quite an adventure, but God worked out the details. Four team members helped finance the $10,000 cash purchase plus another $1000 to pay for renting a truck to transport them. Now we have more than we need for this year and will have to move them again to another storage spot once this year's packing is done. It seems God is preparing us for 2023 packing already. 

And here we are just a few weeks later getting ready to start this year's packing. Two days ago we received our shipment of cartons and boxes to get ready for attempting to pack 11,200 boxes to fill two trucks. We prayed much over the delivery and God blessed us as the truck driver used his pallet jack to pull the pallets into the gym for us.  Later that day we took a borrowed truck to pick up stuffed animals from storage. 

Yesterday we had to load and unload two large trucks full of items from our main storage container and another team member's basement. God provided the trucks, the volunteers, and a DRY (though hot!) day for the job. By 3:00 yesterday afternoon we had the gym set up and ready to pack--the earliest we've done this for the past three years. 

Today we're enjoying a sabbath and praising God for a busy three months that brought us to the brink of another packing adventure. Tomorrow we start and trust God to do it AGAIN! 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Red Sea Deliverance


Did you ever go through a period of pull and tug that feels like a bit of a Red Sea experience? Our packing party team has had months of this. I can't even explain all the ways that I, for one, have felt confusion and a lack of discernment since last summer about whether God even wanted us to continue packing large numbers of boxes. 

This feeling isn't anything new, really, I guess. This is a hard task and every year I wonder whether God is telling us it's time to end it. This year, though, has been especially hard. We found out last year we'd be losing much of the space we've used for packing since we began these packing parties in 2009.

Then, last fall, we lost storage containers and went from three down to one. At the same time we lost alternate basement storage space, too. And last year's packing sessions had depleted our team in so many ways. Were we too exhausted and too old to do this again? 

Still, I think each person on our team kept thinking of the children who receive these shoeboxes. We know each box means one more child and his/her family will have an opportunity to hear of God's love. So, we've continued moving forward step by step. 

This morning I read again the story of the crossing of the Red Sea--that amazing deliverance of God's people. Don't we all long for that kind of deliverance? We want to see God come through for us in inexplicable but tangible ways. And...He does!

The past few days have been nothing short of amazing. My husband and I went to meet with the staff at another nearby church about the possibility of using their large gym to pack our boxes this year and they were so welcoming and accommodating. It sounds dramatic but it was honestly a bit like watching the Red Sea part.

We also got several donations of stuffed animals over the last few days. It's just encouraging to see God provide like that. And by God's grace we're awaiting a shipment of items for packing this year's boxes even as we trust God for the 10,000 stuffed animals and additional fillers we need to round them out. We're not through the Red Sea yet but we're following Him.

I just re-read something I wrote last year on this day when I read the same passage in Exodus about the Red Sea and wanted to record it here to save it:

Steps When You Face A Red Sea:

1) Settle down (don't fear!)
2) Stand by (wait expectantly)
3) Stay silent but go forward (let God fight for you)
4) Stretch out your staff (act when God tells you to)
5) See salvation (watch for deliverance)
6) Serve the Savior (rejoice in His salvation)