Step into Cathy Wood’s Riverhead home and you’ll find 2,000 flattened shoeboxes in one room. School supplies and toys are crammed throughout the rest of the house.
This year, she said, over half of those donated boxes will be stuffed with necessities and gifts and sent to underprivileged children in countries around the world.
For nearly 19 years, Ms. Wood, 59, has been dedicated to Operation Christmas Child — a ministry project of the nondenominational Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse — which sends school supplies and toys to children in Africa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Ms. Woods was recently honored for her commitment with a nomination for Suffolk County’s 2016 Woman of Distinction Award.
“I just find that she’s an incredible lady making all those shoeboxes for the past 18 years,” said her friend Nathalie Alenski, who nominated her for the award in January. “It’s over 15,000 the number of shoeboxes she collected and sent to people all over the world.”
One nominee is named for each of the 18 Suffolk County Legislature districts and Ms. Wood was the nominee for District 1, chosen by Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who represents the North Fork and Riverhead. A reception was held last week to honor the nominees and reveal the winner chosen by the Suffolk County Women’s Advisory Commission.
Mr. Krupski said Ms. Wood was selected as the District 1 nominee because of her dedication to helping people who really need it.
“You don’t have to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner,” he said, “just someone who wants to make a real difference in someone’s every day life.”
Ms. Wood said she and her father, Reginald Peterson, spend nearly the entire year shopping for and soliciting items to fill the boxes. Her entire family, including her husband, Don, gets involved in the charity work. She joked that people can’t visit her home without bringing an item to donate to the effort.
“We, at least here at our house, are very detailed about what we put in,” she said. “We send paper for schoolwork and we’ll put in tennis balls, a stuffed toy to hug, a T-shirt or small towel and socks. Girls get a doll in every box and boys get a lot of games without batteries because once the batteries die it’s unusable.”
She said these items, especially the school supplies, are important to the children in these areas because in many cases they can’t attend school and receive an education without supplies and their parents can’t afford to purchase them.
Often, she said, students will use the same sheet of paper over and over, erasing their work and adding new information until the paper is so worn it begins to rip.
Ms. Wood said she usually packs 1,000 boxes a year and will keep packing until she runs out of either time or items. To save on her own expenses, she asks friends, family and local businesses to donate and she makes a lot of the items, such as crocheted hats and scarves, herself.
“We don’t really have any concept of what poverty is here in America,” Ms. Wood said. “In 2010, boxes were sent to Sri Lanka and the letters I got were so grateful. Parents had written that it was the first time their children had smiled since the tsunami.”
Ms. Wood said she learned of her nomination about a week before the March 22 reception, which is held annually in celebration of Women’s History Month. She attended the ceremony along with Ms. Alenski, who submitted her name and is a fellow member of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue. At the event, the commission announced Gail Lynch Bailey, who is involved in multiple volunteer efforts in Middle Island, as its ultimate winner.
Nevertheless, Ms. Alenski said the event “was phenomenal. Not only for Cathy, but just seeing the ladies interacting and sharing why they were elected was a very humbling experience.”
Anyone interested in participating in Operation Christmas Child, which donated more than 11 million shoeboxes in 2015, should contact Our Redeemer Lutheran Church or visit samaritanspurse.org.
Ms. Wood said she was “touched that her friends see [her] as a woman of God,” adding that participating in Operation Christmas Child each year is a chance to be “able to share Jesus with the children.”
“That’s the best hope that a child could ever have,” she said.
Photo Caption: Cathy Wood folds shirtdresses she made for young girls who received Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. (Credit: Nicole Smith)