Jessica Barnes on campus

Soon-to-be AU grad and middle school teacher makes hundreds of Christmas shoeboxes in free time

Published on Dec. 12, 2022
College of Education

Ever since she was a little girl, Jessica Barnes has wanted to be a teacher, growing up drawing diagrams of her future classroom and coming up with homework ideas.

“I’ve just always loved learning and I feel it is a way to use my creativity to give back,” said Barnes, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in education during Ashland University’s winter commencement Saturday, Dec. 17.

Because the 22-year-old has always wanted to help children as a teacher, Barnes also has found another way to make the lives of kids better – Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child.

According to its website, Samaritan Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization that provides spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. Its Operation Christmas Child sends decorated shoeboxes filled with necessities like hygiene items, school supplies and clothing, as well as some fun things like toys, to children in need during the holidays.

“I’ve always had a passion for serving people, especially when it comes to kids,” said Barnes, who has made hundreds of shoeboxes over the years. “I want to do everything I can to make sure no child goes without a necessity, and even better that they don’t go without a toy. Many of these kids will never get another gift in their life.”

Barnes plans to stay involved with Operation Christmas Child well beyond college graduation. She hopes that will be in her hometown of Amherst, where she is now student teaching sixth grade language arts.

Because of its widely acclaimed education program and a partnership with Lorain County Community College (LCCC), Barnes said choosing AU was a “no-brainer.”

“I just knew that would be a path that would keep me local while also get the best education,” said Barnes.

“People I’ve talked to who have gone to other colleges don’t feel prepared going into their placements,” she added. “I felt like I knew what to expect and I was well trained to go into my placement.”

She’s also become well trained in making Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. She organized a community event in November at her church in Amherst where about 80 people of all ages made 240 shoeboxes.

Next year, Barnes has a goal of 300 shoeboxes for her annual packing party, which she started two years ago with little promotion and about a dozen friends and family making 70 boxes, followed by around twice as many people and 120 boxes last year.

The first informal packing party started because Barnes was getting overwhelmed with the shoebox goals she had set for herself. At 15 years old, she made one shoebox. Then, three the next year, followed by nine, 15 and 30 each year after that until she asked for assistance.

The assistance and support from her professors also greatly helped Barnes during her journey toward this month’s college graduation.

“I feel there was a lot of knowledge and experience and empathy that was brought to me,” Barnes said about her time in AU’s education partnership program with LCCC. “I haven’t had any real negative experiences.”

Scott Haber, who is supervising her student teaching placement, said from the moment he met Barnes this summer he knew she was meant to be a teacher.

“She is dedicated, she is caring, she is always well-prepared,” Haber said. “She really takes the time to get to know her students and, in a world that can appear to be nothing but negative at times, she is always positive with her students.”

Haber, a former Amherst school district teacher, said teachers don’t always see the differences they make, but he already sees the impact Barnes is making student teaching.

Being able to make a difference in the lives of children across the world was how Barnes began making the Christmas shoeboxes when she was 4 years old at the suggestion of her father.

The family kept making a few boxes each year until their church stopped serving as a collection site when the organization it was working with shut down, Barnes said. That’s when she found Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child and took ownership of it.

Her parents help her any way they can, including decorating shoeboxes, which Barnes makes sure each have unique designs on the lids.

With money she has earned from babysitting and painting designs on things like shoes, canvases and a variety of other things, Barnes is always looking for items to put in shoeboxes. Once a month, she and her dad go out for pizza and clearance shopping.

She buys the shoeboxes through Samaritan Purse’s website because they need to withstand being delivered by camel, elephant and other harsh travel conditions.

Many items are donated to her and a Christian school near her home is a collection site this year that encourages its students to bring in shoeboxes by giving them a day to not wear their school uniform for every box they bring in up to 10 boxes and covers the shipping costs, Barnes said.

“I know a lot of students who go there,” she said with a smile. “I don’t have to pay shipping, which would have been $2,500 and they get dress-down days, so it’s a win-win-win.”

Even though she realizes her Christmas shoeboxes project won’t keep growing exponentially like it has, Barnes said she doesn’t plan to taper it down.

“I'm sure this shoebox thing that we started years ago will be ongoing for many years to come,” said her dad, Chuck Barnes. “I'll probably have to look into getting a storage unit at some point since our house starts overflowing with small toys and socks, toothbrushes and a list of so many other things.

“But as I work my way through a living room filled with shoeboxes I see joy in my daughter because of the joy that little kids in other countries will have for getting something that would probably be taken for granted here in the (U.S.),” he added.

That passion for wanting to make a difference in peoples’ lives, especially children, is something that will make Barnes a special teacher for years to come, Haber said.

“I've been very impressed with her,” he said. “It's hard to stay positive in this world today but Jessica is a good role model on the power of staying positive and how important a difference one person can make.”