Natalie Sourbeck has been stuffing shoe boxes from a very young age. Not with shoes, but with Christmas gifts.
Ever since she can remember -- and even before she was born -- the Sourbeck family has participated in Operation Christmas Child, a volunteer effort that ships millions of shoe boxes to needy children around the world.
What began as a good deed in 1997 -- the Sourbecks assembled two boxes that year -- has morphed into a full-blown community affair with Natalie, 13, at the helm. Her helpers include older sister Samantha, mother Cynthia and father Bill. For a few years the Sourbecks, of Northport, packed those two boxes. Then they packed four. In 2010, their goal was to pack 200 shoe boxes but they tallied 514. Last year's total was 1,301 boxes. This year, the Sourbecks have filled 1,648 and still are working.
"It is very important to us," said Natalie, who is home-schooled. "It's good to get out there and help."
She's not the only young Long Islander with a charitable spirit. Lindsay Gruntorad, 22, is spearheading a volunteer effort of her own, and the beneficiaries of her philanthropic crusade are much closer to home.
Gruntorad runs a one-woman coat drive out of her family's home in Levittown. For the past seven years, she has crisscrossed Long Island in search of winter coats to donate to soup kitchens, women's shelters and veterans' organizations in New York. When she began the drive in 2005, Gruntorad collected 50 warm jackets from her family and friends. The next year, she gathered 167 and the numbers continued to spike. Last year, Gruntorad acquired a personal-record 617 coats and redistributed them to local charities.
The inspiration for her coat-collecting mission came during a Thanksgiving Day visit to a soup kitchen when Gruntorad was 14, she said. Everyone standing in line for a meal "looked so chilly," she said. "My mom and I went home and I said, 'I can't come back here next year without something for them.' " The coat drive was born.
Many helping hands
All the Sourbecks take part in the project run by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian organization.
The Sourbecks' involvement in Operation Christmas Child has grown over time. Besides packing their own boxes, the family began volunteering at a local collection center, loading thousands of boxes from around Long Island onto trucks bound for the operation's headquarters in North Carolina. This year, Natalie and her family will travel to the main processing center in Charlotte to help sort and inspect millions more boxes headed overseas.
Each box the Sourbecks assemble is crammed full of gift items: soap, a washcloth, a tennis ball, a cup, a notepad and notebook, pencils, pens, a pencil sharpener, erasers, candy, crayons, a bandanna, a pair of socks and a stuffed animal. The Sourbecks gather the goodies throughout the year, saving their money, clipping coupons and scouring stores for sales. Many of the items are donated -- shoe boxes from T.J. Maxx, crayons from Chili's, tennis balls from Sportime. Some are homemade: To each box, Natalie and her family add a handcrafted toy top, a jingle bracelet or jump rope.
Over the years, the Sourbecks have become increasingly creative about acquiring materials cheaply. When they discovered the tough red rubber bands wrapped around heads of Andy Boy broccoli could be used to bind those homemade jump ropes, the family began eating vast amounts in order to save money on supplies. When Andy Boy stopped binding broccoli with rubber bands, the Sourbecks wrote the company to request a donation of the leftovers. Request granted.
But collecting gifts -- or making them -- is only half the battle. Each item must be distributed among thousands of women's size nine shoe boxes. For the past three years, the Sourbecks have held a "packing party," to which friends, neighbors and even strangers have come to the family's home to lend a hand. "We set up an assembly line," explained Natalie; each person adds one item when a shoe box comes along.
Except for 100 boxes, Natalie said. Those boxes, not included in the year's final tally, are hers alone. Each year, Natalie packs and wraps them herself. In some she includes a letter to the recipient, she said; the recipient sometimes will write back. Natalie and her sister have received letters from children in Zambia, Ghana, Malawi and India.
"My sister does have a pen pal in Malawi," Natalie said. "They have been writing for a long time now."
Warm thoughts and coats
Gruntorad knows exactly what she's looking for in a coat donation. "Something warm," she said. "That's most important. Something heavy. Not old and tattered or with holes." And it has to be stylish. For a while, Gruntorad was getting a lot of 1980s neon windbreakers. "We've kind of slowed down on that," she said, "which is nice."
Gruntorad collects more than coats. "I accept anything that will keep you warm -- coats, sweaters, sweatshirts, snowpants, gloves, hats, scarves, mittens. Any winter items," said Gruntorad, who works as at funeral home in Queens.
Her collection methods have grown more sophisticated. She now solicits donations via Facebook and local newspapers, and has enlisted Girl Scout troops across Long Island to gather coats for her as well. Gruntorad also recruits her family. Often, her father or boyfriend accompany her on coat pickups, she said, and her mother helps sort them.
"It's a big family operation," Gruntorad said. "We pile the living room up to the ceiling with coats. It's a nice thing to do as a family."
This year, superstorm Sandy took a bite out of the coat drive with most people donating winter gear for immediate use locally. Gruntorad, however, is still out collecting coats. She has put some 200 miles on her car so far for this year's drive and remains undeterred. "I have at least 400 coats," Gruntorad said the day before Thanksgiving. "And I still have about a week and a half to go."
An altruistic streak runs in her family, she said. "My mother has been such a huge influence on me," she said. "To make sure you do good things for others who don't have as much as you, or need a little help."
"I anticipate doing this for years to come. I just need to think of new creative ideas to reach more people. But I'll make it work."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Operation Christmas Child's National Collection Week has ended and the drop-off location on Long Island is now closed.
But there is still time left to customize a shoe box online via a Web option called "Build a Box." To donate, please visit Operation Christmas Child at the Samaritan's Purse website: samaritanspurse.org
Monetary donations earmarked for Operation Christmas Child can still be mailed directly to Samaritan's Purse at the address listed below. Operation Christmas Child also accepts completed boxes year-round at its headquarters:
Operation Christmas Child
P.O. Box 3000
801 Bamboo Road
Boone, N.C. 28607
If you have warm winter gear to donate, email Lindsay Gruntorad at email@example.com.