To Mirela Gospodaru Wahner, the brightly colored candies were the big prize in the Christmas-wrapped shoebox she opened about 25 years ago in her native Romania.
"We had candy," she said, "but it was not so popular. We had [some] money, but couldn't buy much [because] there was not so much there to buy."
The shoebox Wahner opened was one of millions annually sent around the world by Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan's Purse. The Boone, N.C.-based nondenominational evangelical Christian organization provides aid to people around the world.
Wahner now is a member of Red Bank Baptist Church, which is attempting to assemble and pack 4,000 shoeboxes for this year's drive.
Tonya Greer, wife of pastor Sam Greer and coordinator of the drive, said that would be the largest number the local church members have ever packed.
She said an Operation Christmas Child regional director told her the average is 200 to 500 boxes for an enthusiastic, larger church.
About half the 4,000 boxes will be filled today in a packing party at the church, Greer said. The other half are being packed by individuals and classes, she said.
This is national collection week for Operation Christmas Child, and Red Bank Baptist is serving as a national collection drop-off site.
Greer said the boxes are distributed by missionaries and local pastors. Gift notebooks and pencils often make the difference in whether students can attend school, she said.
"These boxes go to impoverished children around the world," she said. "They don't have what we take for granted. This allows us to share the joy of Jesus and the spirit of Christmas with them. Many of them never have received a gift in their lives."
Wahner, 33, said she was 8 or 10 years old and living in Iasi, Romania, when she received the first of three boxes she would get. She said her mother did not let her open it at church or in the car, but made her wait until after dinner at home.
"I was so amazed at all those things," Wahner said. "I wanted [the items in the box] to last for a long time. It was my little treasure box."
Although the box had toys, notebook, pens and pencils, the candy excited her most.
"I would take one [piece]," Wahner said, "open it, lick it and put it back in the wrapper. I wanted it to last forever. I promised myself when I am grown up, I will have money and buy myself candy."
Greer said the church has collected nearly $13,000, including one $8,000 gift, and has been acquiring items to put in the boxes for four months.
"The congregation has donated endless items," she said. "Whatever I pushed [through Facebook, the church bulletin or personal announcements], we would get flooded with."
The Tony Parrish Sunday school class gave the $1,200 cost of 4,000 boxes, she said.
Greer's history with Operation Christmas Child began six years ago when members at her husband's previous church in Bush, La., wanted to throw a first birthday party for her now 6-year-old daughter, Brayde. Because she "didn't want all those presents for a 1-year-old," she suggested members pack boxes for the Samaritan's Purse ministry.
That first year, Greer said, the church assembled 77 boxes. Last year, the Louisiana congregation -- with about 200 active members -- packed 7,000 boxes.
It "broke all kinds of records," she said.
When the Greers came to Red Bank Baptist in June, Samaritan's Purse asked if she might duplicate the ministry there. Although Chattanooga-area churches have been involved in Operation Christmas Child for many years, the Red Bank church never had.
"The congregation is extremely excited," she said of the venture, "and we are anticipating a very large turnout [for the packing party]. We are close to our goal, but we are scrambling ... to make sure we have enough supplies to meet the God-sized goal."
One of those volunteers is Wahner.
"I know how it feels to open the box and be amazed and be happy. It's just for a little while; it doesn't last forever. But you have that memory forever."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...