Shoe boxes can hold more than shoes. The Operation Christmas Child project proves it with millions of shoe boxes filled with school supplies, toiletries and toys for needy children.

With National Collection Week happening Nov. 14-21, countywide packing parties are underway, organized by churches, groups and individuals who want to lend a hand. This year's goal? Twelve million boxes.

"Operation Christmas Child wouldn't be possible without the efforts of local volunteers," said Nicole Sheldon, OCC regional director for the upper Midwest region. "Packing parties, like those hosted by churches and volunteers, are an important way for volunteers to connect and pack shoe boxes together."

How it works

People fill the shoe boxes, then deliver them to churches that serve as drop-off sites. From there, they are driven to collection centers and then head to a central processing center in Minnesota. Finally, they're hauled to the airport and shipped to kids in 150 countries.

OCC was started in 1993 by Samaritan's Purse, a humanitarian organization that has delivered more than 135 million boxes to date.

Kane County

Based in the St. Charles area, a group of home-educated students plans to collect shoe boxes filled with items by families from their co-op. The group of teens will collect shoe boxes over a two-week period and then deliver them to Hosanna! Lutheran Church in St. Charles.

"Last year, we packed 78 boxes," said Sarah Whitchurch, 17, of Sleepy Hollow. "Based on the growth of our co-op, we will probably aim for 90 to 100 boxes this year."

Hosanna! Church's OCC relay center coordinator Shera O'Neil of Bartlett said last year they collected more than 3,000 shoe boxes.

"We're the place where everybody can take their shoe boxes to, and we will get them to the semi that gets them to Minneapolis," O'Neil said.

Individuals and groups can pick up empty shoe boxes from the church.

"The boxes come to us flat, so this year we'll be assembling them for people," O'Neil said. "We're putting together a box building party for our middle schoolers and high schoolers."

The Sunday school director works with youths in the church to fill about 100 shoe boxes.

O'Neil said, "Help from home-schooled students has been absolutely fabulous. This year, I'm reaching out to local high schools to get more high school youth involved."

Cook County

Paul Peterson, a resident of Covenant Village of Northbrook, has been involved with packing shoe boxes for five years. He attends Northbrook Covenant Church, a drop-off site located next door.

His village's packing party will include about 50 seniors who will fill shoe boxes. Last year, they filled more than 200.

"We started earlier this year, and we have a three-and-a-half-foot tall receptacle that has been filled twice already," Peterson said. "This is just one of those wonderful things that happens that helps kids out."

Peterson recalled one story of a young girl who got a box with a toothbrush in it.

"She said it was the first time she had her own toothbrush," he said. "She had to share a toothbrush with a variety of girls before that."

Residents who've contributed in the past tend to double or triple their efforts each year.

"It becomes this infectious thing," Peterson said.

Lake County

Heritage Church in Lake Zurich is planning its collection under the direction of Michelle Benigni, OCC volunteer relay center coordinator. Benigni has been assisting with shoe box collections for 20 years, so it's easy to name needed items.

"The big thing that we like to see in a shoe box is a doll or a soccer ball or a fun toy," Benigni said. "It should be something the child can pick up right away and play with."

She suggests coloring books, Beanie babies, Barbies, notebooks, toy cars, sewing kits, hard candy, washcloths, gloves, socks, T-shirts, flip-flops, handmade items, tiny blankets and thin towels.

Heritage Church will hand out empty shoe boxes and provide a display table to give people ideas for items.

"Our women's ministry is planning a packing party," Benigni said. "Last year, they packed 100 boxes with that ministry alone. This year we should be able to collect at least 500 boxes from our church."

The church serves as a drop-off site and relay center, and will be open during specified hours to receive gifts from the public.

"It's my job to get the boxes to the collection center," Benigni said. "I rent a truck and the boxes are packed into cartons. I have people load them onto the truck and drive it to Grayslake."

DuPage County

In Darien, Four Corners Community Church is hoping to collect 500 boxes this year.

This is the fourth year Four Corners has served as a relay center. The church, located in a warehouse, now serves as a collection site, which means it has the capacity to receive shoe boxes from corresponding relay centers.

"As the love of the ministry grew and people saw how many children and families were being able to be reached with the gift of a shoe box, and being shown the love of Christ through that, I think the church became more excited," said Lisa Hultmark, who is coordinating OCC volunteer efforts at the church.

Serving as a collection site involves many willing volunteers who bring in cartons and load trucks.

"We're tracking how many boxes are in each carton and how many cartons are going on a truck," Hultmark said. "It's been exciting to see the even bigger picture of what's happening."

Within the church, various groups are filling the boxes.

"Bible study groups will do it, and vacation Bible school has selected OCC for a mission project in the past," Hultmark said. "They packed boxes that summer and just held them until November."

Hultmark and her children have enjoyed filling their shoe boxes with deflated soccer balls and hand pumps.

"It not only impacts that child, but impacts the community because it takes a whole lot of kids to come out and play soccer," she said.

The whole purpose of OCC, according to Hultmark, is to "let these kids know that they're loved, they're not forgotten and God loves them."