Since I have mentioned our church’s missionary Christmas gift project, I’ve had some questions about it, so I thought I would explain it a little more. But I want to say at the outset I would also love to hear what you or your church does, and I would also love to hear from missionaries about what things have been helpful and even not so helpful that individuals or churches have done for them.
Whatever you do for missionaries or servicemen or anyone overseas, contact them first. It is all too easy to be a burden rather than a blessing with packages. We have had some missionaries for whom the duties they would have to pay on packages would make receiving any kind of package prohibitive. Others can tell you particular designations to put on the customs forms that would cause the least problems or duties for them. In some countries there is a degree of corruption in the mailing system, and missionaries can alert you to wording on the customs form that would not draw undue attention. Some missionaries have people come over from the States regularly and would rather you send a package to those people who will then bring it when they come — this not only saves on shipping but is more secure. And most countries have lists of prohibited items. The United States Postal Service web site has an Index of Countries which you can click on to find specific prohibited lists and other details, like package size restrictions, for each country.
I also want to say that when I mention problems or frustrations, it’s not meant as whining or complaining. I just want to be realistic for anyone who might be contemplating doing this. Anything we do in this life, even as a ministry, will have it problems.
As it stands now, what we usually do is e-mail our missionaries in the summer to ask for gift ideas for their family members and ministry and any particular mailing instructions. We also ask for ages of children, sizes, color preferences, etc. We try to give them a reasonable time frame, knowing that they are busy and that some have only limited e-mail access (of course, for those with no e-mail or unreliable e-mail, you can always write them a note). The very first time we explained a little bit more about what we were doing, but most of our missionaries are familiar with it now.
Then I take all the responses and make a master list and make copies to give out to folks at church. I also make a master sign-up list which stays on the back table at church. As people peruse the lists, they sign up for the things they want to buy, and a designated box is placed for people to turn the items in as they buy them. We usually do this over the whole month of September. Then in our October ladies meeting we wrap and label the gifts, then over the next few weeks I package and mail them.
The lady from whom I got this idea would put the gift ideas on 3 x 5 cards and alphabetize them by missionary name, then set up a little table in the church lobby so that people could come to her, tell her who they wanted to provide a gift for, and she would give them a card and note who had what card on a list. That worked fine for that church, but for me, I personally would like to see the whole list before deciding what to buy. I’ve learned over the years that some people buy for particular people, but some people buy preferred things. One lady used to buy tennis balls and golf balls every year because we would have some of those on several missionary lists: another lady who was a nurse liked to buy anything of a medical nature, etc. Some people prefer to donate money, and I use that for gifts that haven’t been signed up for or to “fill in” (for instance, if one child in a family gets socks and another has two toys, I try to find a toy to balance it out).
Another lady mentioned putting the gift ideas on paper ornaments on a Christmas tree in the lobby to make it a real “Christmas in September” (or July or whenever you do it). Though I really like this idea, I’d be afraid of some of the ornaments being accidentally knocked off or blown off or taken off by little kids, etc.
I ask for the items to be turned in unwrapped for a couple of reasons. I don’t want to over-manage, but sometimes people do get the wrong thing or the wrong size or title. Sometimes the gift isn’t quite appropriate: someone recently turned in an item for a one year old that was better suited to an infant. Sometimes people turn things in in big gift boxes that are bigger than the postal size restrictions, so we have to repackage them.
One of the problems that I encounter is timing. Sometimes the missionaries don’t respond in time (many are great about answering right away, and some travel and don’t see my message for a while, but some, just like us, don’t “get around to it.” When I do hear from them after I have made the master list, I can either buy their gifts with designated money, or often someone at church will come to me near the end of our endeavor to ask if anything is still needed, and I can give them ideas from those late entries.) And sometimes church folks don’t get things turned in on time, so it can take a while to tie up all the loose ends.
Another problem is that some missionaries will have people sign up for a lot of items, and others will have few to none. Part of this has to do with accessibility: people easily sign up for things they can get at the grocery store or Wal-Mart. They also tend not to sign up for anything over about the $20 range. Some families don’t mind spending $25-50, but they don’t want to spend that all on one thing. Many missionaries send us a variety of ideas and tell us they don’t expect everything on the list but just want to give a variety, which is excellent. We do ask the missionaries to designate on their lists if there is anything they prefer more that another on those lists, but only one has ever done that. So sometimes we end up with one missionary family with two boxes full of smaller grocery store items and another who only listed maybe one idea per person, but those items were harder to find or a little more expensive, and those missionaries don’t get signed up for at all, though the totals of the items on their list are about the same. I do try to emphasize to the folks at church that it would be better to have one gift per person than many gifts for one and none for another. At this point we take care of that with designated money or funds from our ladies’ budget, but I am trying to figure out a better way to handle it. I don’t at all begrudge the one family the two boxes of stuff, especially the items that I know they can’t get in their country — but I don’t want another family to have little.
Some churches deal with this by buying the same items for every missionary family, so they all get the same packages. But I would really rather personalize it with things that they truly want and can use. One missionary friend was telling me that those kinds of packages almost always contain toiletries, and though they appreciate the intent and the thought, they’re almost overrun with toiletries. So I think a generic package that would be meaningful might be hard to do unless it is something personal or homemade. Another church I know sends $25 per person for each missionary family member (usually to their mission board, but check with the mission board or missionary first to find out what’s best for that individual family), and that’s fine, too. But it is fun for them to get packages in the mail, and even with cash, there are items that some can’t get in their country that we’re happy to send.
Despite some of the problems mentioned, this is a joy to do, and we have heard from our missionary families that it is a blessing. I don’t know if there is an ideal or problem-free way to handle gift-giving overseas.
This is the first year that we are mailing things without benefit of what used to be called “surface mail,” the slowest but cheapest mailing rate (one person said things sent by surface mail went via boat, train, or llama. :) ) The post office did away with it because they felt senders were more interested in speed and reliability than a low cost factor. When I first heard this earlier in the year, I consulted our pastor and church business manager to see if we should do anything differently. They said to just do things the same way this year and we’d evaluate before doing anything next year. It will probably cost us easily twice the shipping fees as in previous years. We want to be generous and be a blessing to our missionaries, but we want to be good stewards, too, so we may have to do something different next year, like put an emphasis on just sending things they can’t get in their country or sending one item per person or something else in the future. I’m not quite sure yet what we will do.
Some general tips for sending overseas mail:
— Though it is nicer to send things in gift boxes, when you’re sending a lot you have to compress everything down to the smallest and lightest packaging that you can.
— Anything liquid — lotion, shampoo, etc. — need to be put in a sealable bag and have some packaging material around it to absorb it if it should spill.
— Things with strong odors (soaps, candles) need to be put into sealable bags and placed away from food items in the shipping box.
— Anything breakable needs to be wrapped with packaging material to cushion it.
— There might be some things, like books, that can be ordered online and (and sometimes even gift-wrapped) and shipped directly to the person.
More mailing tips are here.
This wasn’t originally intended as a “Works For Me Wednesday” post, but then I decided it would work for that, too. You can find more tips, or add your own, at Rocks In My Dryer.