COCHISE COUNTY — On Tuesday morning three semi-trucks stuffed with holiday cheer and messages of faith pulled out of Calvary Chapel in Sierra Vista, en route to Fullerton, California.

The trucks were loaded with donations of gift-filled shoeboxes — about 14,000 of them — which will be shipped to one of 160 countries and distributed to children living in impoverished conditions. Gift boxes collected in Southeastern Arizona typically go to the Philippines and Mongolia.

Since its inception in 1993, the program known as Operation Christmas Child has reached millions of children and has grown to 160 countries. Including the United States, 11 countries are involved in the shoebox gift collection and distribution, representing nearly 575,000 volunteers worldwide.

“This program continues to grow every year,” said Ken Kuhn, the local shoebox campaign’s logistics coordinator for Southeastern Arizona. “This is the first year we’ve needed three semi-trucks. In the past few years, we used two, so it’s rewarding to see this kind of response from our area.”

Kuhn also noted the program sends boxes to victims of hurricanes and floods within the U.S. and to Native American reservations.

Along with Cochise County, shoeboxes for this area’s collection campaign came from the towns of Safford and Morenci in Graham County.

While drop-off points are established in different locations throughout the county, Calvary Chapel in Sierra Vista served as the final point during the program’s collection week, which fell between Nov. 15-22. OCC volunteers were on hand to track and load the gift-filled boxes into waiting semi-trucks.

Meanwhile, working out of First Baptist Church in Benson, Pat and Dan Barrera served as drop-off coordinators for that part of the county. Along with Benson, shoeboxes were collected from Sunsites, Dragoon, St. David, Pomerene, J-6 and Mescal, as well as Sunizona and Pearce, to name a few of the contributing communities.

As of Monday, the Barreras had transported two horse trailers filled with boxes to Calvary Chapel in Sierra Vista. As more boxes continued to come into the Benson site, they were expecting a final count of about 1,400.

“Churches in Benson have been big contributors,” Pat Barrera said. “We also received boxes from some of our businesses, like Ace Hardware, Long Realty and Washington Federal, this year. The number of boxes we collect increases every year.”

Shoeboxes are filled with such items as school supplies, clothes, sunglasses, hats, stuffed animals, toys and personal hygiene products.

Participants decide whether the box will be for a boy or girl and select from age categories of 2-4, 5-9 or 10-14 when purchasing gifts. A label is secured on the top of each box as a guide for distribution.

Candy and other food items, toothpaste, aerosol cans, liquids, lotions and breakable items are not acceptable and will be removed from the boxes during an inspection process.

“For many of these children, this gift-filled shoebox is the first gift they have ever received,” Dan Barrera said.

“It’s rewarding to watch videos of the distributions and see the sheer joy on the children’s faces when they open the boxes.”

According to the OCC website, more than 188 million shoebox gifts have been delivered to children across the world. The goal for 2021 is to reach another 9.7 million.

In addition to the gifts, each shoebox contains a storybook in that child’s language that shares a Gospel message about Christ.

“I like the idea of giving gifts to poor children, but I think the most important thing about this project is teaching them about Jesus,” said Demariay Medina, 21, a member of a young adults group from LifeHouse Church in Sierra Vista.

“Through Operation Christmas Child, these gifts go to areas that we could never reach,” he said. “We hear testimonials from all over the world because of this program.”