With the holidays right around the corner, a local couple is leading efforts to make Christmas more special for underprivileged children across the world.

For 16 years, Mel and Beverly Hofecker have coordinated the Samaritan’s Purse project Operation Christmas Child at Belmont United Methodist Church in Johnstown. 

Operation Christmas Child is a nondenominational Christian organization that provides spiritual and physical aid. 

The initiative brings together volunteers around the world to fill shoeboxes with gifts for children in need.

“It’s really good because it helps children all over the world that never get a gift,” said Mel Hofecker. “When they get a shoebox, it’s really a great thing for them.”

“It also introduces them to the gospel, which most of them and their families don’t know,” Beverly Hofecker said.

For more than 20 years, the church at 107 Coldren St. has been the area’s relay center, receiving completed shoeboxes.

Last year, the church collected more than 3,000 shoeboxes from the area to be sent to children in need across the globe.

“We feel great about that,” Mel Hofecker said. “In fact, every year we try to get more and more. We do all kinds of things throughout the year to have people pack shoeboxes so that we can increase our numbers every year.”

The Hofeckers said this years goal for the world-wide initiative is to reach millions of youth in more than 100 countries.

Each shoebox packed becomes a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship, the couple said. Every box contains several items and includes a booklet titled “The Greatest Journey” that tells the story of Jesus in the child’s native language.

“We’re spreading the gospel,” Beverly Hofecker said. “Each shoebox gift is an opportunity to share about Jesus Christ.”

The local couple is now encouraging the entire community to come together and participate in the initiative. 

Shoeboxes can be dropped off at the church beginning Nov. 18 through Nov. 24. The hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. In addition to those hours, Wednesday will offer extended collection hours from 6 to 8 p.m.

Those interested in participating must follow packing instructions, the Hofeckers noted. The shoebox can be packed for a boy or a girl in one of three age categories: 2 to 4 years, 5 to 9 years or 10 to 14 years.

A quality item such as a doll, stuffed animal or clothing outfit can be inserted.

Other fun toys, hygiene items and school supplies can be added as well.

A personal note for prayer and a photo also can be added.

A donation of $9 is needed to help ship the shoebox overseas. Its destination can be discovered online at samaritanspurse.org.

Some items should not be placed in the shoebox, Mel Hofecker noted. Those include damaged items, war-related items such as toy guns or military figures, toothpaste, food and candy, or any type of liquid.

In addition to being the area’s relay center, the Belmont United Methodist Church will hold its annual mission trip at the beginning of December to the processing center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This year, several area residents have volunteered to help at the center, getting the shoeboxes checked and ready to ship around the world.

For more information about Operation Christmas Child or to become a volunteer, contact the Belmont United Methodist Church office at 814-266-3964.

Other shoebox drop‑off locations in the region include: Patton United Presbyterian Church, 509 Magee Ave., Patton; Ebensburg United Methodist, 100 E. Highland Ave., Ebensburg; Martindale Christian Missionary Alliance, 179 Alliance Ave., Portage; Camp Harmony, 1414 Plank Road, Hooversville; St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 1338 S. Imler Valley Road, Imler; and Chestnut Ridge Independent Fellowship Church, 1486 Quaker Valley Road, New Paris.

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.

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