November 22, 2006

From Riverhead, With Love

Riverhead resident Cathy Woods' home is filled with shoeboxes — 1005 of them, to be exact.

The boxes symbolize not clutter but love — a holiday gift to the world: Each box, carefully packed by Woods with donated toys and toiletries, school supplies and sweets, is to be sent to needy children worldwide by Samaritan's Purse International Relief, the organization that sponsors Operation Christmas Child.

Founded in 1970, Samaritan's Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization geared toward helping those in need; each year, Operation Christmas Child delivers millions of gift-filled shoeboxes to children around the world.

For Woods, the project is personal. For eight years, she has, with the help of her 81-year-old father, East Marion resident Reg Peterson, decorated the boxes, which are filled to the brim with goodies from the community.

"It's not just me," she said. "It's all of the people who donate. I come home to find bags of donations at my door." Friends scour sales for holiday merchandise; Woods is already gathering donations for next year. "One year, there was a sale on stuffed Easter bunnies. Later, I got a photo of a child in Russia with a bunny rabbit, and I knew it was one of ours," she said.

Woods, who cannot have children, began her mission of love after she lost her cousin and best friend, Naomi Tyte, to breast cancer at 41. "She was the closest thing I had to a sister. She loved kids," said Woods. "She would have thought this was the best thing in the world."

Woods was inspired by her cousin's generosity, even in the face of cancer, offering donations she couldn't afford. "I was shamed."

Woods, who professes a deep faith, said she is touched by the outpouring of love from her community that gathers every year to help bring the shoe boxes to a distribution center in Riverhead. Young people from the Riverhead High School Key Club joined other volunteers this year; Panera Bread donated a buffet lunch for all.

"We try to be as community-minded as possible," said Panera general manager Charlie Golding.

The pay-it-forward approach has paid off; in eight years, Woods has sent off 4000 boxes of love. Many offer monetary donations to help offset the $7 per box — $7000 this year — needed to send the boxes worldwide. "It's such a wonderful thing."

The lives she's touched are tangible to Woods, who has often included a personal note in some of her boxes. She treasures the missives she's received in return: "Thank you very much for the Christmas gift," wrote a Sri Lankan child who survived the tsunami. "I was very happy to receive it."

Shining the light of hope into the lives of those who have seen tragedy brings Woods joy. "You put a smile back on someone's face," she said.

Giving brings Woods the greatest gift of all. "Whatever we give out, I've gotten it back, thousands of times more. You get to see the very best of people."

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