Young volunteers gather at the Y 
to pack gift boxes for needy kids overseas


Young volunteers pack plastic containers with gifts for needy children overseas at Suntree YMCA Family Center as part of Operation Christmas Child.

Photo by Mike Gaffey

For a few hours on Nov. 19, Suntree YMCA Family Center resembled Santa’s workshop.

About a dozen young volunteers gathered at the health club at 6300 N. Wickham Road, Suite 114 and packed toys, school supplies and toiletries for needy children into shoebox-sized plastic containers.

The 350 containers, as well as shoeboxes donated by Y members and other individuals, family members, groups and churches, will be distributed around the globe as part of Operation Christmas Child, the world’s largest Christmas project of its kind. Children in more than 130 countries have received more than 113 million gift-filled shoeboxes and containers, thanks to the annual drive.

“They go to Africa, Asia, India, South America, a lot of war-torn countries,” Suntree YMCA Operations Director Joe Rowlette said of the gift boxes. “Anywhere in need.”

Members of the group God’s SQUAD gave up part of their Saturday to prepare the gift boxes. Although they are not officially affiliated with St. Mary’s Catholic School or the church, the volunteers are current or former students of the prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. 

“It teaches this kids to give back,” Rowlette said. “A lot of these kids also brought a box. So whether you went to the store to buy stuff or if you packed it, you’re getting a sense of ‘Hey, I’m doing something for somebody else.’ “

Volunteers sorted through items purchased through a donor’s cash gift and a donation from Dollar Tree, Rowlette said. Items were sorted for boys and girls in ages 2 to 4, 5 to 9 and 10 to 14.  

The finished boxes were sent to Boone, N.C., headquarters of Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational Christian International Relief organization which presents the annual gift drive. From Boone, the boxes are distributed worldwide.

It’s the 20th year that YMCA of Central Florida has taken part in the project. In 2014, the Y collected more than 25,000 gift-filled shoeboxes. 

The program has been around long enough now that Rowlette has met three college students now in the U.S. who received gift boxes as children.

“All three times they all still had one gift from the box,” he said. “Usually it’s a stuffed animal, and that’s why we try to pack a stuffed animal when we can. But whatever it is, they always tend to hold on to one thing from that box. And they all brought it with them when they came to college. And what they do is when they’re older, they become spokesmen for the program.”

For more information, call the Suntree YMCA at 321-259-2929 or go to

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