Review: Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the USS Contessa

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The Story:

Merchant ship the USS Contessa,  a “banana boat” owned by a fruit company, traveled with a hold full of refrigerated bananas while the upper decks held passengers willing to save a little money on a cruise by traveling with the smelly fruit! (I can’t stand bananas–especially the smell!!!) Then World War II happens and the ship is needed for other uses.

What I Liked:

I enjoyed the stories of the people–Captain John, George Patton, Lord Louis [the reader said ‘Lewis’] Mountbatten, Walter Cronkite and a host of others. This part of the book was very lively and engaging as was other parts of the back story, such as the story of the movie Casablanca or the beginnings of the OSS/CIA.

What I Didn’t Like:

The author seemed to be stuck in the convoy systems zig-zagging. I never felt the story come together. It was more like a string of anecdotes than a history of the ship’s service.

 

Rating

3 Stars

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Lessons From OCC’s Boone Processing Center, Part IV: FILLER

Filler: What it is and isn’t

Your church holds a packing party. You have decided to break your last year’s record of 319 boxes. But people haven’t brought as much stuff as last year. You’ve even put in Great Aunt Edna’s yearly output of Granny Square slippers that no one anywhere on  the planet wants. A few funeral parlor fans and the church stapler have been packed. The pastor has maxed out his VISA card buying more stuff at the local Dollar Tree and the Youth Pastor is Ziplock-ing old French Fries from his van floor. You are stuck at 299 boxes. So you decide to put what you can in the other boxes needed to reach 320 and call it a night. The Processing Center, someone reminds everyone, will put in more. After all, someone else says, they have all kinds of stuff for those shoe boxes you can fill online for $25. Right?

WRONG!!!

Operation Christmas Child buys nothing except the materials for the Greatest Journey program. Shoe boxes are solely filled by volunteers like you and me.  What you see in those green bins in the video above, and what the staff are loading into the white plastic bins for the processing stations, is called “Filler.” But no, it does not include the soccer balls, flip-flops and stuffed animals you can put in a $25 online packed shoe box. In fact, on my first day, we had stuff for filler that should have gone to the landfill–and I’m environmentally aware. I live near a landfill. We really don’t want more of those. Some days, we were told by staff, there was NOTHING to put in that box  containing, say, only a tennis ball and a Bud’s Car Wash pen. NOTHING. Got it? No nice water bottles. No new socks. Not even a toothbrush.

Filler–the Bad

  1. Graduation Cake decorations
  2. Unsold Halloween costumes (all the same)
  3. Mouse pads
  4. Flimsy cardboard Spaceman masks with just an elastic thread to hold them on.
  5. Spanish language “You can be a nurse” pamphlets (I did include English ones since Ghana–the country we were packing for that day, was a British colony and English is taught).
  6. A pillowcase dress made out of a pillow case so old it was totally transparent.
  7. A pillowcase dress made out of plain old muslin with straps made from 1970’s-era hem lace bought in the sewing notions department in a color not seen since the Carter administration. It was so ugly I cannot imagine someone wanting it. And, I’ve been to a village rated one of the poorest on Earth by the U.N.
  8. A zillion of the same fast food toy. (It might have been the canon in the 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean toy set–I didn’t open the bag to see.) Obviously this was not a popular one.

A note on some of these: Yes, they might like the little Graduation hat and diploma when they finish The Greatest Journey–they have a little ceremony. Yes, maybe Grandma could sit on the mouse pad. Yes, they could remake the dresses. But, come on! This is JUNK. And, in the case of the commercially produced items, they got tax credit for a gift in kind. The recipients KNOW these boxes are packed by some of the richest nations on Earth–the USA, the UK, Germany,  New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Australia, etc and . But guess what? They also have crap-o-meters. They can smell the garbage. I’ve seen the crap sent to Mozambican refugees back in the day. It was crap like this.

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Filler the Good, or at least the acceptable

Other days the pickings were better–somewhat better at least. Mostly the good items came from donations by shoebox packers though, with a few exceptions.

  1. Padded drawstring bags in black or gray that were likely made for electronic devices. These were good quality and held pencils or, in one case, a bag of indiscreetly placed sanitary napkins. [Note to packers: No girl in any culture wants THOSE to be seen at a party, ok? Bury them under stuff.] Useful for Legos, marbles and other small toy collections or hair accessories.
  2. Small white stuffed dogs–very cute and high quality
  3. Shoebox-sized, but very nice Disney stuffed Nemos
  4. Shoebox-sized, but very nice, stuff San Francisco 49ers Footballs. Make great pillows.
  5. Other pillowcase-style dresses nicely made in bright, modern fabrics.
  6. Wooden cars–the best cars of all for an African village child.
  7. Plastic sandals in boys sizes.
  8.  Finally some soap, wash cloths and toothbrushes.
  9. Two fabulous Pencil Granny packages of school supplies in big denim zipper bags, suitable for Secondary School students or to supply an entire family.
  10. A Lego set.
  11. Small sets of pens, pencils and paper.
  12. A few Hot Wheels
  13. Nice, teenage-appealing paperback Bibles in English.

Remember

If it isn’t donated, processors can’t add it. My team took a couple of small bags of leftovers for filler, but what Processing Centers need are semi-truck loads of GOOD STUFF. Though I wouldn’t pack it in a personal box, adding a left over soccer jersey is still adding a shirt. But it’s not a help if it’s an adult XXL. I recently read an article where a journalist bad-mouthed the program for people packing this sort of  stuff. Sure, some people truly DID pack lousy stuff, but I was really surprised that Operation Christmas Child not only accepted this garbage but URGED it’s inclusion. So OCC is generating its own bad press with this! This is a WONDERFUL program. Help keep it that way by donating the type stuff it’s recipients NEED.

I get it–OCC must graciously accept (and re-gift) items to keep getting more filler items. But when you are the kid whose box contains half a spiral notebook (yes, people sent such things–cut in half with a buzz saw), a few left over restaurant crayons, and a man-size pair of boxers how will you feel when you see your best bud pulling out a brand new soccer ball, a cool t-shirt, sunglasses, a bag of marbles, a year’s worth of pencils, a big box crayons, a four-pack of toothbrushes and a Spiderman washcloth with soap? You’d feel unloved. You’d almost trade with the kid who got the Siberia-ready huge scarf and 6 bars of Zest! It matters that each box be filled with HOPE, LOVE, FUN and usefulness.

Maybe what they need are teams of experienced volunteers to sort shipments of filler?  Then items for adults can be put aside for Hurricane relief or refugee camps or  recycling or something like that?

So please: When you send your boxes, also send filler. Urge companies in your area to donate promotional water bottles, caps, pens/pencils/pads of paper, toys, lanyards, key rings, small size t-shirts or fleece or sweatshirts, golf towels, soap, highlighters, etc or simply pay for some GREAT STUFF. Know a dentist who is retiring? Urge him to send his stash of toothbrushes and floss to a Processing Center. If you craft–craft more for the filler bins–please! If you sew, sew some dresses and simple shorts, some pencil bags or change purses (if sewing clothing, please LABEL it with “Boy 5-9” so volunteers can put it in the appropriate box without having to stop, take off rubber bands and guess the size).

Have filler you want to donate? Want to give shoeboxes a ride to the processing centers? Here is the Gifts in Kind page. URGENT need is for School Supplies and QUALITY toys.

Packing Parties Please Read

Yes, the need is great. But only send what you can APPROPRIATELY fill. I know people are generally better about bringing simple items in than donating cash, but if you can do a special offering so you can fill your boxes much better. (I live in a very poor community–I know this isn’t always possible and I know that what is brought is a huge sacrifice to those families in such areas. But some people reading this don’t live in such areas and can do a special offering).  At the Processing Center we had several cartons come thru from one church that got really boring to process–that’s good, by the way! They KNEW what to pack. The blog  Simply Shoeboxes has great information on ordering toothbrushes and other things wholesale.

In my opinion (and it seems to be shared by most) EVERY box should have:

  1. Toothbrush(es)–I get great 4 for a dollar packs at Walmart–nicer than Dollar store ones.
  2. School supplies (you can skip the glue sticks–few countries receiving boxes have the luxury of art projects)
  3. Clothing item beyond socks (which aren’t used when you don’t have shoes)
  4. WOW item–toy, soccer ball, doll, real shoes (not flip-flops).

If a box doesn’t at least have these–save it for next year.

NOTE: I put Water Bottles or cups in as many boxes as possible, but sometimes I have better stuff so I skip it. Shoes or a really awesome WOW toy or extra little stuff that makes it a very nice themed box may rule out the water bottle or cup. But remember, many, many, many recipients must travel to get to clean water. Keeping it clean is important. Sharing cups or spoons with relatives who may have contagious illnesses is not a great idea, either.

And please STOP telling folks to bring DEODORANT,  Kleenex and Wet Wipes (also Tampons). Please–just stop. Donate those to domestic charities and domestic disaster relief.

 

Lessons from OCC’s Boone Processing Center, Part III: “Finding” Money for Shoe Box Packing and Weird Stuff I Found in Boxes

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I was pleased to spend each shift last week inspecting boxes to make sure no forbidden items were included. That was very instructive. I’ve already discussed how I’d undervalued the WOW item and I’ve mentioned that presentation of the gift really does make a difference. Today I’m going to talk first about ways to find money in your budget for shoe box packing. Then I’ll look at the the weird, crazy, useless stuff I found in boxes. Then we’ll look at Fillers.

 

 

New to OCC Shoe Box packing?

First, if you are new to Shoe Box packing, read this post and follow the links in it to the Operation Christmas Child website.

 

Finding Money for Shoe Box Packing

First of all, remember: One well-packed shoe box is a HUGE help. You need not break records for numbers of boxes packed. One box helps. Quality matters.

Three Ways I’m “Finding” Money This Year:

  1. My Swag Bucks Account. I’m not a huge Swag Bucks Points earner. The videos usually result in viruses and I’m not glued to social media to catch all the codes. That really doesn’t matter. I earn swag bucks by doing my Walmart and Old Navy shopping thru them. If I need to order anything else online I check the site first to see if the store participates. I also do the simple daily poll (1 question). I used to do the search but it seems to take ages to earn with that now. There are all kinds of bloggers who can teach you ways to maximize this (or any other system like this). Just Google it. I’m dedicating this to getting some cool toys for WOW items using Amazon Gift cards. Plus Amazon has great “Add on” items in toys as well–if you spend X amount you can add great toy X for $X. That sort of thing. If you are a Prime member (I’m not) there are also super toy deals just for members.
  2. My monthly Kroger Pharmacy $2 coupon. I get one of these on the paperwork that accompanies a monthly prescription. I usually just toss it in with the grocery coupons, but this year I’m using it either for on-sale school supplies or a discount on a better toy, stuffed animal, soap or soap containers (see this post for the type food container I now buy for soap in some boxes).
  3. Canceled Netflix. I’ll buy myself one month to binge a show I like, but that basically pays the suggested $9 donation for 11 boxes.

Other Ways To Find or Save Money for Shoe boxes

  1. The blogs Simply Shoeboxes and Shoebox Shoppers have other tips–CVS points and Walgreens deals and all that sort of thing. Susan at Girls in White Dresses told me that Menards often has tools for older boy boxes (see yesterday’s post) for free or almost free with rebates. Remember to save pads of paper, pens, good sturdy bags, water bottles, free make-up bags and things you receive at conferences or events–they can at least be filer items when needed. Also save extra kids party favors (always, always as “extra” in a box, clothing your kid didn’t want (that is appropriate) and similar.
  2. Hold a garage sale or sell on Ebay or Facebook or Craig’s List and apply your earnings to your shoe box fund.
  3. Ask friends,  co-workers, book club, etc to donate similar items or give you shoe boxes.
  4. Give up your Starbucks or after work beer with the guys or lunch out one day a week and put the money in a jar for shoe boxes.
  5. Make a meatless pancake dinner once a week instead of having fast food and put the money in a jar.
  6. Ask failed home sales people to donate APPROPRIATE Discovery Toys, Thirty-One bags or other appropriate products.
  7. Cancel the gym membership you never use or the over-price cable tv that you don’t need.
  8. Call Flo and see if you can reduce your car insurance.
  9. If money isn’t super tight look at the “You Saved X Much” on your grocery receipt and put that much cash away–you could easily buy in bulk with that!
  10. Transfer a prescription and use the amount saved on shoe box stuff.
  11. Apply all rebates earned to the shoe box fund.
  12. Dump your change in a jar for shoe box stuff–include any found in the washer!
  13. Say no to ridiculous birthday parties, bake a cake mix cake, and have kids bring pencils, sharpeners, crayons and notebooks instead of gifts.
  14. “Charge” admission to New Year’s or Super Bowl or 4th of July or whatever parties to be paid in shoe boxes, kids’s shirts, soap or whatever for shoe boxes.
  15. Sell or use gift cards you don’t want to buy shoe box stuff. Wal-mart buys cards.
  16. Say NO to one kid activity and put the cost in the shoe box fund. Remember to add the cost gas, uniform/shoes, supplies etc savings to the jar as well, if possible.
  17. Earn money doing online surveys and save the money (the blog Money Saving Mom has a list of safe, reputable companies who do this).
  18. Enter blog giveaways and do store surveys from your receipt to win gift cards to sell or use for shoe box supplies. Save any appropriate door prizes you win or, if cash or cards, use/sell for your shoe box fun.
  19. Have deposit on bottles in your state? Paid Recycling? Add that.
  20. Win at the Casino or lottery? Win at Bridge, Euchre or  Mahjongg club? Pay a sin tax into your shoe box fund. Even a $2 pay out on a scratch off will increase the fund!

 

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The Worst Items I Found In Shoe Boxes

  1. Candy-sized balls of homemade soap wrapped like candy. [Thrown away until we each discovered there was a label–it was that small.]
  2. A partial package of kid-sized sack race sacks.
  3. An item that was either a tube top or a very tight infinity scarf.
  4. A used party banner.
  5. A newborn sized Onesie (age 2 is the earliest). I put it in for a new baby.
  6. A lady’s size XL active wear skort. [I’m hoping this was an accident–like maybe she exercised in the shoe box room and hubby was helping wrap up the final boxes and stuffed it in….]
  7. Whoopee Cushion
  8. A dirty fly swatter
  9. Ziplock bag full of gift bag confetti
  10. Poo Emoji item [Some cultures have strict rules about “poo” and would not be amused at all]
  11. Three printed paper napkins of dubious vintage
  12. A tube-top style ladies top with one shoulder strap
  13. Box consuming, chunky hand knit winter scarves****
  14. Huge packs of bar soap**** (2 kids got boxes with barely more than a 6 pack of soap!)
  15. Swim goggles****
  16. Very used shoes (more in another post)
  17. Multiple packages of Band Aids****
  18. A box of just Happy Meal Toys****
  19. Wet Wipes
  20. Deodorant
  21. Kleenex
  22. Bath poof-scrubbies (which DO make fun toys, but have you tried to use one with BAR SOAP??) No one would associate them with bathing. Maybe with scrubbing pans.

The scarves might be nice in Siberia or in an European refugee camp, but please wrap them tightly in Saran Wrap or stuff them into a Ziplock bag and suck the air out thru a straw. No one really wants just a scarf. A few that I saw were HUGE. Swim goggles? Really? They may not have enough water locally to bathe daily. No one is in danger of chlorine irritating their eyes. First World Item. Leave it at home. I don’t care if they were two pairs for a 25 cents. Happy Meal toys–sigh. ONE is plenty. More than one in a box ONLY if they are a set. Remove the packaging.  I’ll have more to say on these soon.

Please–hygiene items ARE very important. But send extra toothbrushes, not six bars of Zest! One, at most two, bars of soap is enough. A couple of Band-aides are fine, but give whole boxes of Band-Aides to medical missions. Most kids won’t know what they are.

PLEASE STOP SENDING KLEENEX, WET WIPES AND DEODORANT!!!

These are the Holy Trinity of  First World Items and their use cannot be sustained. Plus all create trash which has nowhere to go. I cannot believe they are even suggested. Deodorant contains dangerous chemicals if a toddler eats it. Does your 3 year old wear it? I found some in a 2-4 year old box and several in age 5-9 year olds’ boxes. 14 year-olds in Burkina Faso or Suriname don’t use it. All three of these products are best  donated to local food pantries, homeless shelters and/or domestic disaster relief.

Whenever possible REMOVE ALL PACKAGING

Do you want a child’s joy destroyed by maiming Barbie trying to yank her out of our absurd packaging? There is no garbage truck coming around to take this junk away. It also costs a lot of extra money to ship it. Remove it unless it provides storage for the product–a crayon box is a good example. Remember, you are not mailing these personally, so you are not subject to the whims of an individual customs examiner wanting to extort import duties! Packaging just adds expense to the shipping. If you are worried of it breaking (it won’t if it isn’t crap) then wrap it in a clothing item or washcloth or pack it in a storage container that can be reused. A well-packed box is too full for things to break!

 

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Lessons from OCC’s Boone Processing Center, Part II: Good Ideas

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Ha! I’m an “Inappropriate Item.” [Which means things that cannot go in a shoe box.]

Today I’m sharing about a few things I found to love–some in actual shoeboxes, one in a Facebook post I found after a shift working at the Processing Center. I hope to use these ideas in a few boxes this year.

 

 

 

Geometry Sets

 

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Just before leaving I read that some countries require these for upper-level students. Given how expensive imported items can be, I thought I’d try to include a set in each 10-14 year old’s box this year. I saw several of these come thru my line and loved them. With a nice protective case they just might survive to be handed down from sibling to sibling and see an entire family thru those years of school. Many stores sell packages with these tools, but no case. Those kits at back to school could be slipped into a pencil bag just as nicely. Some countries also want an appropriate calculator. I will be investigating this and buying some appropriate ones at back to school sales. Meanwhile, you can buy the tool kit at Amazon or similar ones at back-to-school at Office Depot [kit link] and similar stores. Walmart has a 10-pack of these for a very reasonable price–under $30.

 

Tool Kit for Boys

 

 

 

The box on the left came thru my line. I loved that it include a heavy TARP. This could truly save a family in the rainy season in many countries. Corrugated roofing is expensive, but a heavy tarp held in place with bricks of rocks will keep the house dry. This box also include a box of different sized washers, screws, nails, etc–not a “picture hanging kit,” but really useful sized ones.  Even though the presentation of the gift was pretty sad looking, the box held a wealth of things. Crayons, colored pencils, routine school supplies and hygiene items were also in there. Another box held the tool box shown above from Dollar Tree and a nice selection of their inexpensive tools, bungie cords, school supplies, rope and other items. Yes, it fit in a shoebox! Another great item to include is a tool belt or nail apron like the white one from Walmart. Walmart also has a low cost tool bag. Here is a video on making a sturdy denim tool belt from old jeans.

 

 

My Personal Mission This Year

 

 

 

 

The thing that upset me most was the number of boxes that just had pens and pencils rolling around in them. I always include a pencil bag in all my boxes. Yes, even for the 2-4 age group.  That way when they start school they have one–or a sibling may have it. Happily, we had as filler some bulky, padded drawstring bags that were probably meant for phones or tablets that I used in some boxes to corral the mess. Presentation matters in giving a gift, but more importantly, these kids usually have to take their school supplies back and forth to school each day. The do not often have a secure building, let alone a private desk, in which to leave them.

So….this year my goal is 400 pencil cases beyond those for my boxes. I want to supply every box that doesn’t have one at the packing party held by my travel buddies church this year! I will be making some, begging for some and buying some.  I’m really hoping some of you reading this will make or buy some for your boxes, your packing party or to send to an OCC Processing Center for filler. Here are a number of samples that you can buy or make. They can be very simple drawstring bags or far more elaborate creations. Even a ziplock bag will help, but something nice looking helps. The instructions for those to make are all on my Pinterst OCC Shoe Box Board.

 

I hope these ideas inspire you to try adding a few new things this year!

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 of my Favorite Books in 2017–Fiction

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Every year I choose a “Must Read Book” to recommend to everyone for the coming year. It’s my favorite book from the current year. I’m not revealing that ONE book here, but here are ten of my favorites. Today’s list has 10 novels.

 

 

Do you enjoy book lists or book memes? Why not join the fun with Top Ten Tuesday each week?  Here’s a link to the rules. You can read all of this week’s great lists here. Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting it each week.

 

What I learned volunteering at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Center in Boone, North Carolina Part I

 

Last week I traveled with a friend and her former church’s OCC Shoe Box team to volunteer at the Boone, North Carolina shoe box Processing Center. We were an awesome team!  I loved the servant’s hearts each person had and that everyone made me–a total stranger to all but one person–completely welcome. We stayed in a rented vacation home that easily accommodated all of us. Each day we went off to the Processing Center and manned an inspection and boxing line. It was a blast! I was thrilled that they let me inspect boxes every day–it was so cool! I got to experience each box I touched as though I was the receiving child. That was VERY instructive!

Lesson Learned #1: The WOW item matters!

OCC asks that each box have a “Wow” item that will immediately appeal to the child. It is most often a toy, doll or soccer ball, but could also be a lovely purse for an older girl or a tool box for an older boy or a nice pair of shoes for any age. What matters is that it is easily the very 1st thing they see!

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Unfortunately, my phone DIED the day we arrived, so I have only photos taken by others on the team. Above is a box I packed that I’ll use to illustrate the WOW! factor. This 5 to 9 year old boy will open his box and instantly see this nice soccer ball with its pump. WOW! Get it? Don’t skip this. Put less in the box if you have to, but do NOT skip the WOW! I have been seriously underestimating its importance!

Lesson # 2: Quality Over Quantity

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The need is really great for boxes and they bring not only stuff, but HOPE. Most of the children receiving these boxes live on the edge of homelessness and and even starvation, so HOPE is very, very needed. Later this week I’ll be talking more about some commonly packed items, but for now I will say choose WISELY.  Better quality makes a nicer gift. Many of the boxes I processed had the foul smell of stone-cold, workhouse charity. Others, though meager, clearly showed the true sacrificial giving of the “widow’s mite.” [See Luke 21:1-4]. We want that hope to come wrapped in love. The box should show that it truly is a gift–God’s provision and the love of a member of Christ’s own family. Many churches have a very incorrect vision of what the Processing Center’s “filler items” are.  Don’t send nearly empty boxes. Just don’t. I’ll discuss this more later in the week.

 

Lesson #3: A Note and a Photo

I do pray for every child who receives my boxes and I pray in other ways for the program and the children, but I do not include a photo or a note. This year I will include a short, generic note. Since I concluded my Peace Corps service in Malawi over 25 years ago and still get an occasional letter at a friend’s house (where I lived briefly after my service) I no longer give my address out in the so-called 3rd world. I can’t solve the problems. I can give to charities that can, however, so that is my response to the letters. I don’t want more letters.

But over and over I have heard and read how much the recipients enjoyed reading the letters and even put up the photos on their wall. Many even consider this the most treasured item in their box. So, you might want to consider a first names only letter and photo.

 

Lesson #4: The Box

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I found out the great thing about these little red and green gems–23 of them go in one carton–allowing a uniform number in each carton. ANY shoe box is acceptable, but PLEASE–shoe box means just that: SHOE box–not BOOT box. They do take those boot boxes and ship them, but yikes! what a cost! And at the other end there may be a carton that does not deliver enough boxes.

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The pre-printed red and green cardboard boxes are a big cost savings over buying plastic ones — 100 for $22. Operation Christmas Child also sells plastic red and green logo-ed  boxes that result in a uniform number per carton as well.  A dozen of these cost $18. The plastic boxes I like to send result in a similar amount of boxes per carton and have just a bit more space. Do NOT buy the cheap plastic boxes at Dollar Tree!!! Later this week, I will focus on the many GREAT items at Dollar Tree, but sadly, their plastic shoe boxes are awful. There was another type plastic box that has latches on each end that stick out–skip those, too.  You can’t pack very many in a carton.

 

Lesson # 5: They Pray!

We really did stop work at various times to have devotions, here a shoe box recipient’s story and PRAY! We prayed for the child receiving the box and that he or she receive exactly the right box. Around the Center there were boxes to put in prayer requests–the permanent staff of Operation Christmas Child prays over these.

 

Lesson #6: It is Super Fun to Volunteer at a Processing Center

 

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It can be a challenge to get a reservation to volunteer, but don’t give up! Call back later on and see who has cancelled or cancelled a few spots. Later this week I will show you more of what we did.

 

Have you volunteered at an OCC Processing Center? If so, leave me a comment with your lessons learned.

Review: A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas

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This one checked a lot of great boxes!

  • Christmas-theme
  • Civil War Era
  • Quilts
  • Family
  • Romance
  • Faith

 

 

The Story

Eliza Spooner must cope on the Kansas Prairie when her husband Will, for no explained reason, decides in the LAST year of the Civil War to finally volunteer to fight for the Union. Many in their area of Kansas support the Confederacy (think back to 8th grade history here and the Kansas-Nebraska act and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision). Eliza and her children, 14 year old Davey and 12 year old daughter Luzena (yes my, “Please no weird names” annoyance kicked in. Luzena was explained though). She is blessed to have a group of good friends with whom she makes quilts. And it is her love of quilting and her husband that compels her to make a small, lightweight patriotic quilt for Christmas to warm her husband as he marches with the Army.

My Thoughts on This Book

First, this isn’t really a “Christmas” book, but a Civil War era family story. I mentioned above that it was never explained why Will waited so long to join the Army.  I also didn’t really think anyone would sacrifice all their fowl and poultry to have feathers to stuff a quilt! Who knows! I found one scene–a memory if I remember correctly, to be very like a scene in the Little House books. No matter. I loved that she wrote a totally believable teenage attitude for the last part of the story! I did find the ending to be contrived–a bit too contrived, but there you go.

Those are little things. I loved that Eliza stepped out in courage and that she lived her faith by being slow to speak and slow to anger, by showing forgiveness, by  offering sanctuary and by not giving in to worldly temptations–without being “too good to be true.” These character traits make this a good book for Christian teenagers as well as for adults, though this is pretty much a woman’s book.

My Rating

3.5

A Quilt For Christmas by Sandra Dallas

I listened to the audio version.

 

You can read my review here of another of Sandra Dallas’ books, The Persian Pickle Club. I thought it was fun that “Persian Pickles” (i.e. paisley) was mention in A Quilt For Christmas, too.

Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

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Introduction

The role of women in World War II has often been narrowed to three roles: factory workers, secretaries and nurses.  As time goes on and more and more papers have been declassified, we’ve learned that women’s roles varied quite a bit more than those three roles. Recently more and more attention has been paid to women in the background of various historical events with mathematical skills such as in the book and movie Hidden Figures which details the role of African American women as mathematicians on the space project and in the book Glass Universe about women at Harvard’s observatory. Given those two, it is no surprise that a new history book, Code Girls, deals with women hired to help break the codes used to encrypt messages sent by the Nazis, the Japanese and other Axis nations during World War II. Like the British at Bletchley Park, the United States had a code breaking apparatus. It provided work for a surprising group of well-educated women. This book is their story.

What I Liked

This is how layman-level history should be told! Plenty of research to back everything up, but it was told in a breezy, keep-you-interested style. I loved the way the stories of individual women were woven into the fabric of the book. We learned their backgrounds, their roles and their results–this really held my interest. Surprisingly, given I have nil, zip, nada, no interest in mathematics, I found even the slightly technical aspects of this equally fascinating. I suppose it helps that binary math was one type of math I “got,” and one discussion focused on a similar type system.

Today it seems amazing that such a talented pool of workers were marginalized just for being women.  The first women selected were, naturally, recruited from the Seven Sisters Colleges (women’s “Ivies” of the day) so they were very well educated, very literate, and generally better off financially. But others were brought in with different backgrounds–many from the ranks of public school teachers. It is hard to recall that 80 years ago high-achieving women often had no employment prospects beyond teaching school–even when they were degreed mathematicians! (I can also see how their freedom was part of the “doom” of the public schools. A captive catchment of very talented teachers was lost).

I thought about today’s culture of “tell-alls” and whistle-blowers and Wikileaks. I thought of the supposed selfishness of young adults today. I wondered if today’s young adults and today’s culture could handle the absolute secrecy needed for the job. On the whole, I think they could–after all today’s health care system requires intense privacy restrictions. Military and government service–the State Department, the National Security Agency and others still have a strict system of “need-to-know” and even seemingly innocuous jobs like a copy room clerk require confidentiality agreements. I think most young adults today would find exactly what these woman found: challenging, fulfilling and purposeful work–even when dull and repetitive. The secrecy would bring about the same group loyalty today too, I believe.  It would be as eye-opening to our young people today as it was to these women to learn just what the threats were to security.  Learning of one’s own naivete is part of growing up.

Just as amazing was the “hardship” of how the women lived during this time.  Sharing a bed–either at the same time as another women or using the same bed as a woman working a different shift, putting up with limited shopping hours, having to take care about dating relationships in a way unfathomable to most people today–wow! A ton of extra stress on top of a very stressful job. As the story tells, some couldn’t hold up under the stress, but most did.

What a shame that we then dispatched these talented women back to the home–which many found stifling. It is very easy to see how the women’s liberation movement was born after experiences like this brought out the best in women and then they were sent back to cooking, cleaning and child care. Even if they loved their families it had to be an intellectual let down. I found the stories of the women who did go home and who decided to thrive where they were as interesting as those who remained, against the odds, at work. This was a generation who really made mark for good on our country. It was as inspiring to see how they coped after the war as during it.

Additionally, it should be an outstanding movie!

My Rating

4 Stars

A Must Read for Book Clubs

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books On My Winter TBR

toptentuesday

Here are a few of the books I’m anxiously awaiting between now and the start of Spring.  This list is nearly all historical fiction. I haven’t found a good list of all genres so these will suffice for today. Can you guess the two I’m most looking forward to?

 

Top 10 Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish each week. You can read more about it here. Or, you can read this week’s lists here.

Review: Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

 

Introduction

If you read their short stories in Fall of Poppies, you’ll understand immediately why I was drawn to Last Christmas in Paris. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb live and breathe the spirit of the World War I era.

The Story

Evie and Thomas correspond throughout the War. Their letters, and occasionally those of other people in their lives, cover the range of emotions throughout the long, senseless war. Along with Evie’s brother Will and their mutual friend Alice, the foursome had planned to spend a Christmas in Paris. The war changed that. There is also a brief, intermittent, story of one character in 1968 throughout the book.

What I Loved

Everything. I just loved this book.  I especially liked the way the couple’s letter show the changes the war brings to them and to their outlook–the maturity in some ways, as well as the ways they are left unchanged. Seeing the notions of masculinity, honor and duty crushed by the senselessness of the war is soul crushing both to the reader and the to the characters, yet the book is in no way depressing–this is a story of mutual encouragement.

“It is March [1915] already You and Will have been gone six months. Half a year. It feels more like half a lifetime. How much longer must we endure this, Tom? How much longer until the enemy is defeated and you can return to England, victorious?” ( Evie p. 70)

“I wonder when my time will be up? Will it be all white-hot pain, or the slow drain of life ebbing away? I keep a last letter in my jacket pocket–a lot of us do, just in case. I think about it often, who will read it first. Will the words have any meaning when I’m only a memory in the ground? …In these moments I wish I had drawn up a will. It was foolish to leave my fate to chance….” (Thomas, p. 77)

Six months into the war and this is how they feel! Wow! Six months. As the years of the war go on, as friends and loved ones die, as other threats arise, their friendship endures.  It is so hard to even give quotes here without giving spoilers!

I loved the way we see the modern world beginning in their stories–the “battle fatigue” cases that today we know as PTSD are one way. The use of women in noncombatant roles,  not only as nurses, eventually grows to place them, in uniform, very near the front.  Women also found some freedom on the home front to take jobs left vacant by the men who were off fighting. Farming, labor, and service jobs all saw women filling roles and doing it well. Women were also writing in the press specifically for other women–this is, of course, the era of the Suffragettes.  In Britain the movement agreed to stop for the duration of the war, but women still made their voices heard. By telling the women’s side of the war, all of Britain benefited and men, even the stuffy club men, had to take notice.  Barriers were coming down in some ways, as well. At the front the men banded together having to trust each other in spite of class differences. Men and women also began to find romance across class distinctions at the front, or very near the front, as well.

My verdict

4 solid stars

This book is a treasure. Don’t miss it.