For 20 years Operation Christmas Child has been sending shoeboxes crammed full of cuddly toys, sweets and everyday essentials to children abroad who have very little of their own. Charlotte Shepherd met Joan Townsend who helps to run the operation in South Cerney.

"I describe the shoebox as a hug in a box," explained Joan Townsend. "Filling a shoebox with things for children who have nothing is the simplest idea. Our own children have so much and these children don't even have a soft toy to hug."

Mrs Townsend is a presenter in the Cotswolds for Operation Christmas Child, the shoebox campaign run by charity Samaritan's Purse. 'Presenter' means that Mrs Townsend gives talks to groups such as scouts, guides and schools, telling them about Operation Christmas Child. It is work that she has been doing as a volunteer for the last 20 years.

When we meet Mrs Townsend has just returned from addressing an assembly at Kemble Primary School. "I asked the children to close their eyes and imagine what present they would like to find on Christmas morning under the tree. I then asked them to imaging coming down on Christmas morning and finding no Christmas tree and no present. I tell them that their filled shoebox could change this and turn a sad face into a happy face."

Operation Christmas Child has turned millions of sad faces into happy faces over the last 20 years. Over one million filled shoeboxes are sent from the UK to children in Eastern European and some African countries each year. Children in countries hit by disaster, such as Haiti, have also benefited from the "hug in a box".

The shoebox appeal grew out of one man's horror at seeing images of children in Romanian orphanages in 1990. Dave Cooke from Wrexham asked friends to help fill a truck with toys and drive it to Romania and the following year Operation Christmas Child was born.

As well as getting the message across, Mrs Townsend also helps to sort through the boxes when they come in at the beginning of November to South Cerney Village Hall, ready to be sent to Evesham and packed onto lorries.

Each year South Cerney receives well over 1,500 boxes and Mrs Townsend estimates that they have sent in excess of 10,000 boxes since the project began. The hall is just one of many drop off points across the Cotswolds receiving the shoeboxes between November 1 and 18, including Stead and Simpson in Cirencester.

Although she has never visited any of the country's where the shoeboxes are sent, Mrs Townsend has heard enough heart-warming stories from those who have to know what a huge difference they make. "Some of these children have such grey lives. One little girl last year was given a shoebox and said that she didn't know anyone cared," she said. "They are absolutely treasured by the children who receive them."

* Anyone interested in volunteering to help at the shoebox collection point can contact Joan on 01285 860710 or by mail at

HOW TO FILL A SHOEBOX: Decide if your shoebox is for a girl or boy and print off the label from the Operation Christmas Child website. Here are suggested items that can and cannot be put in the shoebox:

YES: choose items from four categories * Toys: Bear, soft toy, tennis ball, finger puppet, jigsaw, yo-yo, building blocks, small musical instrument. For boys;trucks and cars, for girls;dolls, clip on earrings, etc.

* Educational supplies:Felt pens, pens, pencils, pencil sharpener, eraser, colouring book, notepad, picture or puzzle book, chalk, pencil case, stickers, etc.

* Hygiene items:Toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, comb, hair clips, bar of soap, flannel, etc.

* Others: Sweets (sell-by date to be at least March of the following year), gloves, scarf, sunglasses, cap, hat, bangles, necklaces etc.

(All gifts should be new, please include items from each category)

NO: do not include these items in the shoebox: Food especially chocolate (non-chocolate sweets are allowed), medicine or vitamins of any kind, war-related items toy guns, soldiers or knives of any kind, clothing other than listed above, fragile items glass containers, mirrors, liquids including blow bubbles, shampoo, bubble bath, toiletry sets or aerosols, dangerous items sharp objects, scissors or razors, novels, nothing of a political nature, hand-knitted stuffed toys without a CE mark (knitted items are accepted).

*Go to for more information on how to fill your shoebox and details of your local drop off point.