Lake County families joined in a worldwide effort to bring Christmas cheer to children in need as they packed shoe boxes full of gifts Saturday at Immanuel Church in Gurnee.
Visions of children in orphanages, hospitals, war zones or disaster areas who may not otherwise receive any gifts fueled the efforts of hundreds of volunteers seeking to pack 4,000 boxes in one day for Operation Christmas Child, a project of the nonprofit Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
"You have to see the vision of a child not getting a present," said volunteer Yolanda Mackey of Round Lake Beach, who prepared 33 gift boxes on her own before attending Saturday's packing party.
Immanuel Church has been hosting packing parties since 1995, said Connie Pfeifer, a member of the church and north suburban Chicago area team coordinator for Operation Christmas Child.
Churches and other sites in West Chicago and across Cook County also were busy Saturday accepting donated gift boxes during the charity's national collection week.
"We really do it just to share our love with the children, God's love with the children, and let them know they're not forgotten," Pfeifer said.
Volunteers in Santa hats, snowflake shirts and Girl Scout sashes who filed into Immanuel Church's gym Saturday morning were greeted by a 6 foot tall pile of shoe boxes decorated by hand or wrapped in paper with penguins or snowmen. Choosing a box, they progressed down an assembly line, stuffing the box with essentials like toothpaste, a toothbrush, a notebook, pens and pencils and a stuffed animal.
"We really love to have something soft like a Beanie Baby or a blanket that will bring comfort," Pfeifer said.
Many of those packing shoe boxes for children between 2 and 14 in countries such as Cameroon, Congo, South Sudan and the Ukraine were children themselves, who enjoyed the experience of creating a gift for someone in need.
"It was really interesting because you just feel the need to over-fill it," said Simon Kasemeier, 11, of Grayslake after he packed his first shoe box to the brim.
He and his brother, 15-year-old Noah, said they thought about which items young boys would like to receive before they added baseball caps, bouncy balls and even a squirt gun disguised as a toy ice cream cone into their boxes.
Amy Spillman of Gurnee used the gift assembly line as a teaching moment, explaining the poverty endured by children in many parts of the world to her daughter, 7-year-old Olivia, and son, 5-year-old Evan.
"We talked about that before we left the house," Spillman said. "But I don't think they understand that this is everything these kids will be getting for Christmas."
Boxes assembled Saturday cost about $7 to ship and soon will be on their way across the world via boat, plane, car, camel, donkey or any means necessary. But Pheifer said anyone who still wants to send a box can visit samaritanspurse.org/giving/buildabox to donate online.