WINDHAM – This Christmas has been one of the best ever for a group of 10 girls at Windham Christian Academy.

The girls – who take part in a weekly Bible study group at the school known as Girls Group – shopped at local stores earlier this season buying gifts not for their friends or family, but for complete strangers half a world away.

The group of seventh- and eighth-graders, headed by their sophomore Bible study leader, Lauren Porter of Naples, bought enough gifts to fill 31 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse. The packages are destined for remote regions of Africa and Asia served by Samaritan’s Purse and will be delivered along with a presentation of the Christmas message of Jesus’ birth.

Needing money to buy the presents, the girls hosted a bake sale at the school earlier this fall, which netted them about $100. While the sale gave them a starting point, they had to come up with the rest of the money on their own. Some, like Stephanie Toms, picked up roadside bottles. Others raided their piggy banks or asked their parents for money. And once they had the money, they spent it wisely.

“I went to Dollar Tree because you could get big packages and split them in half,” said Amanda Hung, a seventh-grader who had multiple shoeboxes. “For instance, I got a four-pack of Play-Doh and split it into two different boxes.”

The girls bought all sorts of presents, depending on whether they were shopping for a boy or girl. Katrina Terry included a big bag of lollipops. Lucy Williamson bought some little trucks and coloring books. Sophie Whinnett found a shirt and pants and some hair ties. Makayla Gwinn included lots of candy, a wooden puzzle and Chinese checkers.

While the girls are happy with their shoeboxes, they are also proud of the life lessons they learned from what they agree has been an eye-opening experience.

“Years have gone by, and I didn’t know the meaning of ministry, or the purpose, and from this I’ve learned and I have a closer relationship with God now,” said Hung. “I can picture all these little kids with nothing and if I gave to them this Christmas, they’d be happy.”

Hung’s classmate, Lucy Williamson, who was amazed that a man behind her in line helped cover her purchase at Dollar Tree when she came up short of cash, said she discovered the joy of giving, as well as spending her time more wisely.

“I did two boxes and giving two children a Christmas is worth so much more than getting, like, everything, from your family,” Williamson said. “And I found that 30 minutes of shopping for someone else that’s never had Christmas feels so much better than sitting at home talking to my friends. I just got a lot out of it and I really learned how important it is.”

Erica Bridge, an eighth-grader who has been to poor countries on mission trips, said there was also a deeper intent in the neatly wrapped shoebox packages.

“It’s important because we’re not just giving them a Christmas present, we’re showing them that someone in the world cares enough that they’re there,” Bridge said. “Because a lot of times, I’ve heard from kids down there, ‘Does anyone know we’re down here? Does anyone know we don’t have food?’ That’s what they say.”

Makayla Gwinn said the message is also about God’s love for them.

“Not only you’re giving them Christmas presents, but they get to hear the gospel through it,” she said. “And a lot of them might have never heard it before. So, they get a present but they also get the gospel.”

Porter, the organizer for the collection effort, said Samaritan’s Purse will deliver the girls’ packages and then talk and pray with the kids and their families, with the help of interpreters. Then, the girls, who have each included messages for their recipients, will receive an email regarding the final destination of each shoebox, something they can’t wait to receive.

“These kids have never heard the gospel. Someone talks to them in their own language, and these kids respond so well because someone loved them so much and, out of God’s name, sent them a Christmas present,” Porter said. “Samaritan’s Purse’s motto is ‘The power of a simple gift,’ which is so true.”

Most of the girls had enough stuff on hand that made filling the boxes easier. Anna Blaschke, for example, had a lot of brand-new items right at home that were perfect presents for a poor boy or girl.

“I went down to the basement and there are all these boxes of stuff I’ve never used,” Blaschke said. “And so I opened them up and there was a bracelet that my grandmother gave me that I never wear. And she says I can throw it away anytime I want to, but instead of throwing it away I decided to put it in my box. I was a little sad to put it in there, but after I did, I was glad to get rid of it in a good way.”

Another student, Katie Willard, said the experience has “been so awesome” for her personally.

“When school started I was reading my Bible and feeling I wasn’t doing enough. And I know that heaven is something that is amazing, and God is amazing, so you want these kids to have a chance to hear about it. And so it felt really good to do these boxes,” she said.

So, while aimed at helping other kids enjoy a Christmas, these local girls ended up making their Christmas a little more meaningful as well, Porter said.

“Everyone got a lot out of it I think. And these girls, they got others involved – their friends and family members,” she said. “And it’s such a good cause, because if you think about, one box makes all the difference.”

Working through Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based Christian ministry, several girls from Windham Christian Academy raised money to buy Christmas gifts for poor kids in Third World countries.   

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