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Packed with love

Virginia Tech’s FCA Huddle, led by Cara Cunningham, donates gifts to international children through Operation Christmas Child.

Published on December 08, 2017

Nate Taylor
FCA staff writer

Cara Cunningham, for a few minutes, took time to stop and look around. In front of Cunningham were about 60 people, all of whom were involved in her elaborate activity. She saw the group smiling and enjoying the fellowship among one another while bringing joy to children they would likely never meet. 

Inside Lane Stadium on Virginia Tech’s campus, Cunningham led a group of student-athletes, coaches and faculty members in a detail-oriented way of packing shoeboxes. The session occurred Nov. 13 during Virginia Tech’s weekly FCA Huddle. The group packed gifts donated to Operation Christmas Child, an annual project through Samaritan’s Purse, a nonprofit relief organization.

Before the packing began, Cunningham explained to the crowd that each of the 55 boxes would be given to a child in need in a foreign country as a Christmas present to demonstrate God’s love for them. Cunningham, a senior on Virginia Tech’s volleyball team, became emotional when she saw student-athletes from several teams write cheerful letters to the children.

Tears filled her eyes.

“I just saw all of these people, my friends and people I didn’t know that well, sitting there writing these personal notes knowing that this is going to bring so much joy to a child,” Cunningham said. “Seeing how excited they were to be a part of something so incredible but that they can make it a personal experience was really beautiful.”

The event showed Cunningham, through her faith, what God can do in less than a month.

Her project began with an email. Jeanette Staats, the director of community life at New Life Christian Fellowship, has volunteered for Operation Christmas Child since 2000. Staats emailed other campus ministries, including FCA, to see which organizations wanted to donate boxes. Lesley Clapp, Virginia Tech’s FCA women’s chaplain, forwarded Staats’ email to Cunningham, the outreach coordinator on the Huddle’s leadership team.

Clapp’s message to Cunningham was simple: Is this something you want to take on?

Cunningham met Staats at a Starbucks on Oct. 16 to learn more about Operation Christmas Child and how the Huddle could contribute. The program, which started in 1990, has donators fill boxes with toys, school supplies and hygiene items for children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine, and disease. When the children receive their boxes, many of them, from ages two to 14, are invited, through their local pastor or community leaders, to learn more about the love of Jesus Christ in a 12-lesson discipleship program. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered boxes to more than 146 million children in more than 100 countries.

“For a lot of these kids,” Staats said, “these shoeboxes are probably the only gift that they will receive during the Christmas season.”

Staats also explained to Cunningham how Virginia Tech become more involved with Operation Christmas Child after Elizabeth Henry arrived on campus in 2013. Henry received a box when she was 10-years-old living in an orphanage in Ukraine — and became a Christian through the experience. Before graduating in May, Henry brought greater awareness by collecting and sending hundreds of boxes to children through packing parties. Cunningham wanted to do the same with the Huddle.

A week later, Cunningham, with the help of Clapp, set the Huddle’s goal at 50 boxes. In order to accomplish the goal, Cunningham needed to raise at least $1,000 to put the recommended $20 worth of gifts in each box. Her deadline to receive all donations was Nov. 14 during Operation Christmas Child’s national collection week.

In the beginning, Cunningham felt conflicted. She was eager to tell people the impact they could bring to the children. But she was worried about trying to raise enough donations in just three weeks while maintaining her responsibilities as a student-athlete.

Clapp prayed for Cunningham.

“She just encouraged me that no matter how many boxes are being sent, it will be fruitful and it will be glorifying to God,” Cunningham said of Clapp. “That was my encouragement throughout, just knowing His work is being done.”
Cara speaking at Huddle
Cara Cunningham explains to Virginia Tech's FCA Huddle the positive impact they can have on international children by donating to Operation Christmas Child.
A business management major, Cunningham applied much of what she has learned in college to her fundraising. Her first donation came from herself. She gave $100, and then shared her vision with everyone who attended the Huddle on Oct. 30. 

Social media became vital for Cunningham. She promoted the project on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. She asked the Huddle’s leadership team — featuring student-athletes from the football, swim, lacrosse and soccer teams — to share Operation Christmas Child’s cause and to collect any donations. She sent emails to a number of groups, including the entire Virginia Tech athletic department and any student who had attended a previous FCA event.

Between classes, matches and practices, Cunningham went from one coach’s office to another to see if anyone from their team wanted to donate.

“I knew I was only one person,” she said. “I was in everybody’s ear. I was talking about it all the time.”

Cunningham knew asking fellow students for donations would be difficult. She found solutions, however, through technology. Venmo, a mobile payment service, allowed people to donate to Cunningham without a service charge by using their phone. She also created graphics on her laptop to illustrate to people what a $20 donation would do for a child along with how much she already collected toward her goal.

“I’ve never seen somebody take it and run with it like she did,” Clapp said of Cunningham. “I know she put herself out there and was very bold. To see her rewarded for that faith and obedience is really cool for me to see.”

Cunningham’s coach, Jill Wilson, donated $20. Several of her teammates did the same. The biggest donation, $110, came from the family of Amanda Hollandsworth, a junior on the golf team. Carolyn Thompson, a woman in Cunningham’s weekly Bible study, donated $100.

When Nov. 13 arrived, the volleyball team returned to campus around midnight after a road match the previous day against Louisville. With little sleep, Cunningham took an exam in her Cornerstone Entrepreneurship class. She received the final donations that morning, too.

The total amount given was $1,400.

“It was incredible,” Cunningham said. “I was so surprised that there were so many people that were so generous. I’m so thankful that it was as challenging as it was because God proved to be so good, even in all the stress.”

A portion of the donations were used to track some of the boxes’ destinations. Staats brought the Huddle’s boxes to Operation Christmas Child’s processing center in Charlotte, where most of those packages were being sent to Peru and Madagascar.

“I’m thankful that Cara took the initiative,” Staats said. “For her to just want to do that in the midst of her semester and the season I think is definitely unique.”

Cunningham spent most of the donations at Walmart to purchase the toys, school supplies and hygiene items for the boxes.

“I just went crazy,” she said. “I will never forget the look on the cashier’s face when I rolled up to her aisle with two huge carts.”

At the Huddle that night, Cunningham coordinated an assembly-line of tables for different packing stations. Boxes were filled with toys such as yoyos, balls, stuffed animals, dolls and puzzles.

The last item put in each box was the personal, hand-written letter.

The Huddle ended their packing party by stacking the boxes in a fashion that resembled a Christmas tree. They sang worship songs. They prayed for the arrival of each box and the child who would receive their gift.

The last person to leave the Huddle was Cunningham. Filled with gratitude, she sat next to the boxes and thanked God.

“All I could think about that night was how much Jesus loves the kids and how much joy that they will feel when they open these boxes,” she said. “That’s a joy that can only come from Him.”


Anah Taylor, a sophomore on Virginia Tech’s club volleyball team, writes a letter to one of the children who will receive a shoebox from the Huddle.

Photos courtesy of Christina Dougherty.