NAMPA — Their faces say it all.
A boy smiles and rubs a new pair of socks against his cheek. A wide-eyed girl bundles up her small teddy bear in the warm winter hat she just received. Then, she gives it a hug. It's a gift of unconditional love, wrapped up in a shoebox.
They are only two of more than 2,000 Nampa area school children who were the joyful recipients of a unique Christmas gift from the Nampa First Church of the Nazarene's Project Shoebox. This past week students in five elementary schools opened their surprise packages crammed to overflowing with school supplies, socks, scarfs, candy, toothbrushes, candy, toys, winter hats and gloves.
For some of these children, who come from low income households, this may be the only Christmas present they receive.
Friday, at Central Elementary School, across the street from Nampa First Church, Pastor Marcus LeBaron and Pastor Carol Gunstream looked on while third graders from Mrs. Vandventer's classroom excitedly unwrapped their shoeboxes.
"This is a gift of unconditional love from the congregation at Nampa First," Gunstream said. "Our mission statement says that we are a ministry of hope across the street and around the world. Well, this is across the street."
Central was the first school the First Church congregation adopted when Project Shoebox changed direction and expanded several years ago.
"This is the fourth year at Central," LeBaron said. "The project has its roots in the Samaritan's Purse and in the first years we sent shoeboxes to missions around the world.
But, one day I was watching children walk to school by themselves with no hats and gloves and saw that while we were sending shoeboxes across the world there was a real need right here ... across the street. We saw the need for our love and support and now we try to fill that need."
Since its inception seven years ago Project Shoebox has taken on a life of its own. From shipping several hundred boxes abroad the project has grown into the thousands and continues to add more schools and needy students.
"Wouldn't it be nice if other churches would become involved and adopt a school so that every child in Nampa received a shoebox," Gunstream said.
It takes an army of volunteers from Nampa First Church and other groups to package and wrap all of the shoeboxes. "We have about 800 people come to our wrapping party in November. We make it a party and entire families are involved," LeBaron said. "For a month we have hundreds of boxes everywhere in our resource room."
LeBaron said the goal is not to evangelize. "We just love our kids. The church invests a lot of money in filling in and completing boxes, but the team we have is just amazing. Carol (Gunstream) who is our Early Childhood Pastor is my partner in the project. This thing is bigger than any one person, and she helps share the load every year. I couldn't do it without her."
"Project Shoebox builds such a sense of love and belonging for our students," Central Elementary principal Cindy Thomas said "I can't tell you how much it means to this building and these children. For many it might be the only present under the tree. It's absolutely amazing what's happened. We are blessed people in this building. This is an ambitious undertaking but Marcus (Pastor LeBaron) could sell igloos to Eskimos. He is a powerful person."
Gunstream estimates each shoebox is filled with an average of $30 worth of items. But, cost is never a consideration, she said. "On Sunday we were short 67 boxes and we made an announcement to the congregation. That's all it took and it was done. It's amazing because these are hard times for folks. The message really is to show these kids someone cares. It takes more than two months out of our year, but it's worth it to see the smiles on their faces and to receive those hugs."
LeBaron remembers the pure joy on one child's face when he received new socks in his shoebox. "The boy quickly took off his shoes and put on the socks. He hadn't been wearing any."
Gunstream explained that a list of essentials is included in each box and organizers make sure that they all include fun items. "We've learned a lot over the years and have a real system now."
Members of the Nampa First Church congregation attend most of the classroom shoebox openings and their reward is written on those smiling, warm and happy faces.