Operation Christmas Child

Santa Claus is a woman in her early eighties named Elaine Lauderdale. She has piercing blue eyes and a kind smile framed by a hand with sparkly gold nail polish and an oxygen tube. The bottle of oxygen whirs in the background as she breathes in. 

Her workshop sits in an annex of Rosemont Baptist Church in Niceville on 27th Street. 


Volunteers fill a minivan with presents for children who live in poverty overseas at Rosemont Baptist Church.

On a Wednesday morning, 15 elves put in another shift. They work most Wednesday nights from January to November, sorting toys by age and gender for the poorest children in the world as a part of Operation Christmas Child. But as the time to ship the boxes off gets closer, the elves have to put in some overtime. 

“Each kid only gets one shoebox for their entire lifetime,” Elaine says. 

That’s why the volunteers in the room spend plenty of time pulling toys out of their packaging and playing a Tetris game to put as many toys as possible in the small package. “We want to put as many toys [in the boxes] as we can get [in them],” she added. 

Thirteen years ago, when she started her operation – she made 32 boxes.

The church set aside a tiny closet for her materials. Things have changed since then. A 250-square-foot room, named after Elaine this year, holds a store’s worth of toys, wrapping paper, and cardboard. Another room on the other side of the church sits filled with Operation Christmas Child boxes, too. Stacked on top of one another, the boxes nearly hit the nine-foot ceiling of the secondary facility and block a fire exit. 

This year, so far, they’ve put together more than 1,200 boxes. Their goal was 1,000, but a 250-box donation from Rocky Bayou Christian School put them far above their goal for the year. It means the church, with a weekly attendance of about 55 souls, can punch far above its weight regarding what they call ‘foreign missions.’

Some of the recipients of the boxes reach back out to the volunteers who put them together – through stories. 

Elaine’s good friend Mary sits beside her as she helps to assemble the boxes. She points to a picture frame with a boy from Central America holding a dirty stuffed lamb. Ten years ago, he desperately wanted to go to school but lacked the supplies. His friend invited him to his church for Christmas presents – where he received a Christmas present shoebox filled with school supplies and a lamb. Ten years later, “he still had his lamb,” Mary said, “and he got pencils, paper, everything in that box he needed to go to school.”

In Bosnia, Elaine added, two boys received boxes at the hospital. Each little boy had a leg blown off by a landmine. One got socks, and the other got shoes. “When they opened their box, they looked at each other and they switched [so they each had one sock and one shoe],” she remembered, “now is that a god thing?” Elaine said, “That’s why we do this. Because we never know where each of these boxes are going.”

Santa's Last Mission

Elaine and her helper’s efforts to supply Christmas Shoeboxes continue to make a mark in the world. 

But this could be Elaine’s last mission as Santa Claus. 

She’s currently in hospice care. According to Rosemont Baptist Church Pastor Doug Fannon, she is in kidney failure and is not a candidate for dialysis. 

“I’m praying that she’s going to be around when we do our shoe box dedication this year,” Pastor Doug said. The dedication takes place in the second week of November every year. After the dedication, the boxes are sent off to their destinations across the planet. 


a woman holding up a card.
Mary, one of the volunteers who works with Elaine, shows a stub that is attached to each box. The stub allows you to track your box to see where in the world it ends up.

Until the Lord calls her home, the operation continues under Elaine’s care. But, a credit to Elaine’s impact on both the children abroad and the people at home, the mission will not end when she is gone. 

To the side of the room – another set of vivid blue eyes watch the interview. Elaine’s daughter, Robin Chamberlain, and her granddaughter take a break from wrapping presents and take them to a waiting minivan outside. 

Robin’s Daughter; Ceylona Chapman, a teacher at Rocky Bayou Christian School  helped to organize her students at Rocky Bayou to bring in the 250 boxes, which put the group far over their goal for the year. 

Though it’s a small group, it’s a well-led and motivated one. Elaine’s inspiration, tempered by more than a decade’s service to this mission, hopefully encourages others to do the same. 

So, one person can change the world – both in the United States and worldwide. 

Hundreds of boxes stack next up to the ceiling in an anteroom of the church.

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