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Gatlin brings ‘Christmas’ to Panama

Christmas is the season of giving, and few know more about that firsthand than Christopher Gatlin.

Gatlin, the 19-year-old son of Candy and Andy Willis and the late Chris Gatlin of Andalusia, was recently selected as one of 17 youth nationwide to serve as an ambassador with Samaritan’s Purse Youth, the organization who heads Operation Christmas Child (OCC).

In July, Gatlin, a member of Hopewell Baptist Church, traveled to Panama to distribute shoeboxes filled with “goodies” to poverty-stricken children.

Now, he is urging local residents to do their part to ensure needy children around the world enjoy the magic of Christmas.

“When we were (in Panama), the parents said it was Christmas time for them in their country, and that if we hadn’t come with presents, those children wouldn’t normally have gotten anything,” Gatlin said. “Seeing them, when we counted ‘1-2-3’ and they all opened their presents, well it made me thankful for everything that I had. Some of those children didn’t have shoes or clothes that fit. Looking at them, it taught me to not take the things I have in life for granted.”

Churches and other organizations around the county, and the nation, have already made preparations to construct OCC shoeboxes. Those boxes will be collected from Nov. 16-23.

“Operation Christmas Child is not limited to that one week,” he said. “We pack and collect these boxes in November and December but some are not distributed until July and go all over the world.”

Items to include in boxes are: toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, clothing items, small toys, as well as gender specific “present” items, he said.

“In the boy’s box, it would be a Hot Wheels or some sort of action figure, and maybe a notepad and pen and some dress-up items for the girls,” he said. “We include a book in each box that tells of Jesus’ love and how He died on the cross for us.

“Those boxes are collected and then distributed to children on six continents,” he said. “That’s why I strongly encourage everyone to make as many as possible.

“You don’t have to be affiliated with a church or a civic group to do this project,” he said. “The more that is made, the more that’s collected and the more that’s distributed.”

The following are directions for packing a shoebox, according to the Samaritan’s Purse Web site:

Use an empty shoebox (standard size) or a small plastic container. You can wrap the box (lid separately), but wrapping is not required. Most importantly, pray for the child who will receive your gift.

Determine whether your gift is for a boy or a girl and the child’s age category: 2-4, 5-9, or 10-14, and mark the gift accordingly.

Fill with gifts and include a $7 donation for shipping costs.

Drop off at the nearest collection center.

For more information, call Hopewell Baptist Church at 334-222-2757.

“These gifts really do make a difference in their lives,” Gatlin said. “I know. I saw it on their faces.”