It all starts with a sturdy shoebox. Add a dash of love - perhaps a fun toy, cozy mittens, a little bag of candy and the story of Jesus' birth - and the results are smiles from children and gratitude from their parents who cannot provide those small gifts.
Through "Shoebox Christmas," Mike and Libby Flowers, United Methodist missionaries from the Dakotas Annual (regional) Conference, brighten the holidays for families in two states.
In 2011, the Flowerses distributed - primarily to Native Americans - 5,652 shoeboxes. They hope to write their own loaves-and-fishes story and multiply that to 40,000.
"Approximately 35,000 children live on Native American reservations in the Dakotas," Mike Flowers said. "Those children are mostly the forgotten of our society.
"The typical recipient of a shoebox Christmas gift &ellipsis; lives below the poverty line. In 2011, Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Enemy Swim School in South Dakota and Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain reservations in North Dakota received Christmas gifts."
"Almost anything that fits in a shoebox is worthy of being a Shoebox Christmas gift," said Mike Flowers, who oversees the Shoebox Christmas ministry.
Six years ago, after working in retail careers, the couple answered God's call to ministry at the Children of the Harvest/Spirit Lake Ministry Center (Advance #3020453) in Sheyenne, N.D., and latched on to their predecessor's Shoebox Christmas idea. Now in their sixth year there, they have found their niche.
"Building relationships is the best way to minister," Mike Flowers said. "Before you can feed someone spiritually, you need to feed (him or her) physically. Our ministry is based on trust and compassion. We live our Christian values, and then, if all else fails, we talk."
Little gifts mean a lot
In the autumn, treat-filled shoeboxes begin to arrive from individuals and congregations across the Dakotas. The Flowerses peruse each box to ensure gifts are appropriate.
"We start auditing and sorting them in October," Mike Flowers said, "so we can deliver them by the middle of December." Volunteers from area churches help with that task.
From late November to early December, the Flowerses "drive about 1,400 miles, picking up boxed blessings from all over the Dakotas."
"I like to watch the parents," Mike Flowers added. "You can see the joy on their faces as their children get the gift. We have had many come to us and thank us for making their children happy. Several mentioned that without these gifts, their children would not get anything for Christmas."
How you can build a shoebox
Summer is the perfect time for children and adults to gear up for Shoebox Christmas. Vacation Bible school participants might adopt it as a mission project.
"Almost anything that fits in a shoebox is worthy of being a Shoebox Christmas gift," said Mike Flowers. "We do ask that no clothing be included. It is much too difficult to match sizes with the children."
To start, wrap the bottom and the top of a cardboard or plastic shoebox separately; this allows volunteers to insert the story of Jesus' birth. Ask children in your life what they would like for Christmas. Add one of their suggestions, a few more small gifts, candy, and maybe a winter hat, mittens or scarf. Place a rubber band around the closed box and write the child's age group and gender on the box top. Choose from these categories: Infant, Toddler, 3-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-14, 15 and up.
Send shoeboxes at any time to: Spirit Lake Ministry Center, 3365 81st Ave. N.E., Sheyenne ND 58374. "We get our mail from USPS, UPS and FedEx. If a church wants to deliver to us, we would be happy to have them come and help audit and sort," Mike Flowers said.
Choosing between food and gifts
One mother confided to Mike Flowers that her 8-year-old son had asked, "Why is Santa mad at me and my sisters?"
She said she could not answer her son. Often, she had to choose between food for her family or gifts for the children, she explained. She felt guilty and told her son and daughters that Santa sometimes ran out of gifts because there were so many children in the world. Many times, the mother cried herself to sleep.
The family had recently moved to the Spirit Lake Nation from another reservation. When the young woman heard about the Shoebox Christmas giveaway at the recreation center, she was excited for her children. She worried, however, that since she was not a registered member of the tribe, her children would not be eligible to receive the gifts.
To her surprise, no one asked about her tribal affiliation. They just pointed her to the line to see Santa. For the first time in his life, her son got a gift from Santa. He told his mother that Santa was not mad anymore and that he was a neat guy.
"God provided one little boy and his sisters with their first Santa gift," Mike Flowers said.
While a similar, well-known program requests money to pay shipping costs, the Flowerses do not do so.
"Libby and I deliver most of the shoeboxes ourselves, with the bulk of the gifts staying on the Spirit Lake Reservation," Mike said. "We seem always to receive enough donations to cover the cost of fuel for our vehicle.
"We love what we do."
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.