OTTUMWA — It’s not yet Thanksgiving, but some residents of Ottumwa are already gearing up for the Christmas season.

Several local churches participated in the Operation Christmas Child (OCC) packing party on Thursday at Prairie Hills. OCC fills shoeboxes with gifts such as clothing, hygiene items and toys, and ships the boxes overseas to children in need.

Marilynn Russ, the organizer for Thursday’s OCC packing party and coordinator for the Southeast Iowa collection of OCC boxes, has been involved for 12 years. Her goal for Thursday’s packing party was to fill 200 boxes. Russ said it was hard work setting out all the items, bringing the boxes and getting enough volunteers to pack boxes, but the end result was worth the time.

“We’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “It is very rewarding and we believe there is a God that is guiding this. Things have been provided and the way has been made clear for us to continue to work.”

Russ said she always thought about the effect it had on the children overseas. She never did travel to see their reactions, but she said the reactions kept her motivated to participate in OCC.

“We have been given so much, you know, we’re very grateful,” she said. “We’ve been blessed in abundance and so we’re happy to buy gifts and spend our time working with these projects, helping organize them. It’s thinking about how some of the children are going to react when they get a beautiful doll or a toy car or game to realize the impact we know from the organization that one box can impact seven people.”

The purpose of packing boxes didn’t just end at receiving physical gifts. It extended beyond that.

“The reason we do it is because of our faith,” Russ said. “We feel it’s an obedience to what God would want us to do in terms of reaching out to those in need and loving others through this who have so little. It’s a tangible way to express God’s love. Operation Christmas Child is known to be the largest evanagelistic outreach to children because they get the box, but they also get the message of Christmas and Christ. That’s very important and makes it that much more meaningful.”

Like Russ, Constance Cavanaugh has been participating in OCC for many years. She chose to be involved because of the joy she got from packing gifts for impoverished children.

“There’s so many needy children that don’t have some of the nice things,” Cavanaugh said. “This is a treat to have new clothes and toys that are cool. It’s the right thing that we can give them things they have never been given.”

Lu Owings didn’t just pack gifts for children. She also made them salvation bracelets, with each bead representing spiritual concepts such as sin, baptism, blood, cleansing, growth and heaven. Making the bracelets and thinking of her own grandchildren motivated her to help pack boxes.

“Talking to my grandkids and stuff and telling them about what we’ll do — I think they’re learning from it too,” Owings said. “I love what it’s about. I love the people and watching everybody just put so much of themselves into it and what it does for the kids. I wish I could be there and watch them. That would be the funnest part for me.”

Chiara Romero can be reached at


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