PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘Shoebox Christmas’

The whole story started 10 years ago, at about this very time.

I was at a meeting for Churches United for the Homeless, where I was serving my first year on the board. The executive director was bemoaning the fact that First Link, the organization in charge of distributing gifts to people at Christmas, had made some changes in their program.

In the past, gifts were distributed to children as well as “special needs” adults. However, that year, they decided to change the program and focus only on children. This meant that several hundred developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, elderly and indigent people who had previously received gifts at Christmas would get nothing.

The director was looking for someone to step up and help the shelter provide gifts for the residents on Christmas morning. I immediately volunteered, claiming the title “Chief Elf in Charge of Christmas.” However, I also said I was concerned about the others who would fall between the cracks and worried about what would happen to them.

A couple of days later, I received a call from a woman I had never met. She would go on, several years later, to become the first female mayor of Moorhead, but at that time, Delrae Williams was like me — a regular citizen who simply wanted to make a difference and help people who would otherwise be forgotten.

She told me she heard, through the grapevine, that I had been quite indignant about the change in the FirstLink policy and she shared my concern. She was wondering if the two of us could partner together to somehow provide gifts for those special needs adults who were being forgotten.

We brainstormed on the phone for a while before settling in on an idea. We decided we would contact the local Hornbacher’s grocery store and see if we could put up some containers where people could drop off shoeboxes full of items like socks, jerky, personal care items, gift cards, crossword or word find books, etc. that we would then distribute to organizations whose clients were being left out, without any gift for Christmas.

After receiving permission from Hornbacher’s and arranging for the church I was serving in Casselton, N.D., to be a rural drop off point, we divided up the local social service agencies to find out who would like to receive these shoeboxes and Operation Shoebox Christmas was born.

Delrae and I had a few things in common as we set about on our mission. We both have a lot of connections and will shamelessly use them to help causes about which we care.

We also had the perfect skill set for our endeavor. Delrae, the accountant, had spreadsheets helping us arrange when to pick up the shoeboxes from the grocery store and to what agency they should be distributed. She tracked how many we received, the gender for which they were designated and where they were delivered.

As a preacher, I was comfortable getting the word out. I wrote letters to the editor, explaining what had happened and what we were doing about it — making an effort to focus more on the solution than the problem. I spoke to the media — both radio and television — shamelessly promoting this opportunity to give back. I sent out emails and encouraged everyone I knew to give.

Between the two of us, we also persuaded friends and family to help us with the pickup and delivery of the boxes, which became quite an endeavor as word of our project spread and the containers collecting the shoeboxes began to overflow.

By Christmas Eve, less than five weeks after we had brainstormed the project, more than 800 shoeboxes filled with gifts had been collected and distributed around the Fargo-Moorhead area, so many boxes, in fact, that most people were able to get two.

A few weeks after Christmas, Delrae and I were invited to meet with the leaders of the FirstLink Program and the Salvation Army at the United Way in Fargo.  When we arrived there, it was the first time we actually met in person. All of our work was done over the phone or via email — a good reminder that sometimes people are able to get a lot more done without “meetings,” simply be being action oriented and efficient.

At the meeting, concerns were expressed about the cost and time commitment involved in the program, if they were once again to expand it to include “special needs” adults. Delrae and I simply let them know that our total expenses were about $75 — the cost of the containers we placed at the Hornbacher’s and that we both worked full-time jobs, so this was just an additional activity for us at Christmas, one we both found incredibly fulfilling.

In the end, we must have made some sense because the next year, and every year since, “special needs adults” have been included in the Holiday Giving Program.

What had started as a couple of indignant women upset about what we perceived as an injustice ended up becoming an amazing celebration of the goodness in the community simply because we were willing not to simply complain about what wasn’t, but make a way for what could be — to focus on the solution.

As I think about how I am trying to cope with the realities of a changing America, of the unleashed hatred and racial and ethnic slurs, of the fears of so many as they worry about whether they will be left behind or left out, of the concerns about the last, the lost and the least falling between the cracks or out of the safety net, I sometimes struggle with feeling overwhelmed.

There is so much to do. And I am just one person who often feels like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in an unjust world with unfair systems.

And then I remember our “Shoebox Christmas.”  I may not be able to change the whole world, but I can change the world around me, with a little effort, creativity, determination and a good “partner in crime.”

So rather than complain, or retreat into sullen silence, or be rendered immobile with overwhelming fits of despair, I will continue to forge ahead, doing what I can, where I can, and hopefully find others to join me along the way, as we try to make world around us a better place, one shoebox at a time.

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