Long Prairie woman leads OCC shoebox drive

Blanche Tirk, 78, of Long Prairie has been the driving force behind the Operation Children Child shoebox program at American Lutheran Church in Long Prairie since 1996. Above, Blanche carries a box of supplies out of a storage closet for the shoeboxes. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Blanche Tirk, of Long Prairie, has acquired several nicknames—“Energizer Bunny,” “Totally Awesome Blanche” and probably the most descriptive one, “Crazy Shoebox Lady.” At 78, she is happy to be called names that emphasize her ambition, and she remembers what led her to acquire those monikers.

“I came to a point in my life where I needed something else to do,” she said, taking a short break from directing a 2019 Operation Christmas Child (OCC) shoebox work day.

Blanche had always been involved with her church, American Lutheran in Long Priairie. She hadn’t considered spearheading a new project until her friend and fellow parishioner, Carole Thompson, came back from Little Rock, Arkansas, with an idea. Carole had traveled with their mutual friend, Eva Claire Washburn, for Washburn’s cancer treatment in Arkansas. While sitting in the waiting room, Carole listened to a program about the effort to provide Christmas gifts to needy children across the world. She came back with the suggestion that it “was something we should do.”

OCC is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. Samaritan’s Purse contacted Helen Monson, one of Blanche’s fellow Sarah Circle members, with information about getting started with the shoebox project. Helen brought it up at a circle meeting and said, “We need someone in charge.”

Blanche, no stranger to volunteerism, was feeling that need for something else to do, so she spoke up. That was in 1996.

That first year, the group collected small toys, school supplies and hygiene items to fill 44 boxes. The number of boxes has steadily increased over the years. Last year the grand total reached just over 400.

“I push all the time to get people to bring what’s needed for the shoebox project,” Blanche said, also giving a nod to Helen, who has remained her right-hand helper throughout the years. “Church members donate throughout the year.”

They have some creative fundraisers, too. The Super Spud Supper is the primary one. It’s held the first Wednesday evening in October. The free-will-offering supper offers baked potatoes and all the toppings they can dream up. This year it generated $2,200, twice the income of last year.

Another fundraiser that involves the children of the church is the “Noisy Offering.”  The church pastor got a metal dog dish for the children to put their offering in during the services. Most brass offering plates are lined with felt to dim the racket of coins tossed in. However, the noisy dog dish makes it fun for the children to donate to the cause. Several Sundays’ accumulations go toward the shoebox project. One child recently chinked in 300 pennies for a glorious noise! At the end of the offering, the congregation raises arms and shouts “Praise the Lord,” which is quite an accomplishment for the normally reticent Lutherans. This year the “Noisy Offerings” produced $450. Some of the cash funding is used to purchase items for the gift boxes. Because the boxes are shipped all over the world, $9 goes with each box to cover the transportation costs so cash is needed in addition to donated items.

Blanche explained that the $9 is also used to offer the children a program called, “The Greatest Journey” which teaches them about Jesus.  “It is not required for receiving a box.  All materials are in their own language and if they complete the 12-week course, they receive their own copy of the Bible in their language class also.”

The group of volunteers working with the shoeboxes include (back L to R): Alice Siegle, Joan Pesta, Doris Peterson, Jan Jorgensen, Helen Monson, Larry Adamek, Deb Adamek, Julie Schultes, Celeste Miller and Joanne Manlove; (seated L to R): Blanche Tirk, Marlyne Klinder, Rogene Moss, Betty Meyer, Linda Kielty, Ellie Goplen and Carole Thompson; (seated on floor L to R): Emily Steinert, Jane Olson. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is supporting the project by way of member applications for assistance. Any church member who gets their insurance through Thrivent may apply for a $250 gift card for the project of their choice. These gift cards have added about $1,000 annually for the shoebox project.

Blanche watches for sales throughout the year and has gotten good at ferreting out deals. She found a good deal on toothbrushes at one home improvement store. “We can get a six pack for $6. We open the pack and individually wrap each toothbrush to protect the bristles,” she said, adding that they no longer send toothpaste. Apparently some children unfamiliar with dental hygiene were eating the toothpaste, which comes in candy flavors but is actually toxic.

They no longer include candy, which may be because of the more fragile nature of candy but also because any kid will look for the candy first and maybe not value the other items of greater benefit.

Each box is packed with a bar of soap wrapped in a washcloth; a comb or brush; crayons, markers or colored pencils; small toys and gift items. Boxes are labeled for ages 2-4, 5-9, 10-14 and boys or girls. With that in mind, people who wish to donate can watch for appropriate sales throughout the year.

The specificity of the boxes makes for lots of sorting of items before they’re packaged. The church has one room to store the items as they come in throughout the year. Blanche organizes work days in the fall during which the items are sorted. They make decisions as to whether a child might want a package of note cards or stationary, if the plastic squirt gun is appropriate, if an object with sharp components might be hazardous.

Each of the shoe boxes is carefully wrapped in colorful Christmas paper. Some pre-printed shoeboxes are also purchased from OCC, if more are needed.

Sunday school classes, ages three and up, get involved when it’s time to fill the boxes in mid November. Parents, grandparents and adult friends help younger children choose items for the boxes, making sure that each one contains the required components.

Long Prairie’s American Lutheran Church has been a drop-off site for the last six years. People from other church denominations, as well as those from other communities, are encouraged to drop off completed boxes.

After a dedication service, boxes are trucked from Long Prairie to Monticello, from there to Chicago, and from Chicago to around the world. Boxes arrive in remote areas, delivered by boats, bicycles, camels, elephants and yak carts.

Some of the shoeboxes filled, wrapped and ready to be delivered. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Samaritan’s Purse states, “We ship these simple gifts outside the United States to children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine, and disease; and to children living on Native American reservations in the U.S. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to over 168 million children in more than 100 countries.”

A volunteer National Leadership Team, from various church denominations, strategizes how to reach children in their countries.

  In Long Prairie, people from different denominations work together at the Lutheran church. They remember how their friend, Eva Claire Washburn, who lost her battle with cancer several years ago, was part of getting the project started in this community. They also took out a little time during one of the work days to celebrate Blanche’s birthday.

“Totally Awesome Blanche” or “Energizer Bunny” is thrilled to be still going. “I’m not going to slow down until I have to,” said Blanche, and she rushed off to find some missing materials.