by Dennis Dalman
Patsy Magelssen of Sartell continues to be amazed at how many items one single shoebox can hold: an itty-bitty dress, a hand-size purse, a little ball, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a deck of cards, a doll, kiddie scissors, pencils, pens, a stuffed animal, tiny toys, hard candy, a small stuffed animal, a mini-Bible.
After packing thousands and thousands of such shoeboxes, one would think Magelssen, now 74, would cease to be amazed. But no, it always surprises her. Every time.
“You wouldn’t believe what you can get in a shoebox,” she said. “You just put so many things in it, so much stuff in there and then move ‘em around until they fit in there. It’s so amazing.”
At Celebration Lutheran Church, 28 young people and several adults were also surprised at how much a shoebox can hold. That’s because, with Magelssen at the helm, they all had a recent “packing party” for a good-deed service project called “Operation Christmas Child.” First the youth and Magelssen either bought or collected from their homes all the toys and comfort items. Magelssen made the more than 400 little dresses and purses. Altogether, they packed 438 shoeboxes.
It was a massive undertaking, with help from a $500 grant from Thrivent Financial and the women’s group at Joy Christian Center, who helped string the purses and put their handles on, after which young people at JCC put various small items in the purses.
That number, 438, is not counting the 304 shoeboxes Magelssen herself packed at her apartment.
When all was packed and ready to go, the Sartell Boy Scouts delivered the 742 shoe boxes to Westwood Church in St. Cloud. There, along with shoe boxes packed by other individuals and groups, they are stored until a large semi picks them up and takes them to a warehouse in Minneapolis owned by Samaritan’s Purse, an organization started by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of famed preacher the Rev. Billy Graham. At the warehouse, all the boxes – including countless thousands from other cities – are inspected, a tiny Bible (printed in 113 languages) is added to each, and they are then sealed and shipped to countries far and wide in the world – to scenes of natural or man-made disasters and to far-flung areas of wretched poverty.
Many of the boxes are delivered in the most primitive ways to remote places in 120 countries through often inhospitable terrains and climates. They are delivered by jeeps, camels, donkeys, oxen, horses – whatever can move and carry things.
The children who receive them are stunned, as if something magic had fallen from the sky. Many of them had never received any gifts in their young lives. The precious boxes of gifts can make them deliriously happy.
It’s the first time Celebration Lutheran Church did that particular service project.
“It was fun, and the kids and adults had so much fun,” Magelssen said. “Those teens are so wonderful. They collected so many things, and some brought nearly new toys from their homes to add to the boxes. The three adults who helped were Celebration pastors Jeff Sackett and Elizabeth Strenge and a parent, Chris Garman.
It was Pastor Sackett who heard about Magelssen’s involvement with “Operation Christmas Child” and asked her if she would initiate it at Celebration Lutheran Church. When it comes to good deeds, Magelssen just does not know how to say no, so of course she said yes. And so began the project.
A good-deeds life
Magelssen and her husband, Luther, moved to Sartell about 18 months ago from McPherson, Kan. By the time she moved here, she and 24 helpers had packed more than 20,000 shoebox gifts in about a decade’s time while living in that state.
She has dedicated a good part of her life to doing good deeds, not because she feels obligated but because she just loves to do them.
“It’s the joy of my life, to do something good for someone you don’t even know,” she said.
She might have inherited the good-deed gene from her mother or perhaps through her mother’s good examples.
“When we would have a cake, my mother would cut part of it out and give it to someone else, like the neighbors,” she remembered. “She did that all the time, with so many things we had.”
Magelssen grew up poor, and poverty was a teacher of compassion.
“I know what it’s like not to have anything at Christmas-time,” she said.
Magelssen loves to imagine the joy on children’s faces when they open the boxes and the colorful procession of treats tumbles forth.
Born in Minneapolis, Magelssen lived in many places because her husband, now retired, was in the banking business, which required periodic relocations. The couple lived in Kansas for 22 years. They have three children: David, Mary and Kimberly. Throughout her life, Magelssen was a mother and homemaker, although those who know her claim she did have a full-time job: doing good deeds.
Those deeds intensified in 1979, shortly after her beloved mother died in Minneapolis just two days before Christmas.
“I felt I had to do something in memory of her,” she recalled. “And I was thinking I should not take flowers to her grave in the cemetery in the snow and the cold because the flowers would just die, so I decided to give those fresh flowers to somebody else.”
She knew in her heart her mother would approve.
In 1958, her mother had bought her a Singer sewing machine – a machine she still has, in working order, after sewing countless dresses, purses, quilts and other items for charities.
“I’ve had to have the motor replaced a couple times, but that old machine still works,” she said, with a smile of satisfaction in her voice.
After moving to Kansas, she became aware of a program called Trash to Treasure, which used recycled items, such as discarded or unwanted fabrics, to make goods for people in need. Using her trusty old Singer, besides hand-held needles and threads, Magelssen got to work and made items to give to nursing homes and other places. As long as people and organizations kept donating fabric, Magelssen kept on sewing.
Later, Magelssen learned about Operation Christmas Child, and she began to sew even more, besides collecting so much for the shoeboxes, often at her own expense.
Magelssen has been honored for her charitable work and volunteerism with the KARE-11 TV Award, the JCPenney Award, the Jefferson Award and as Philanthropist of the Year in McPherson, Kan.
She and her work were also featured in an article entitled Women Who Make a Difference in Family Circle magazine. It wasn’t long before the six million copies of that magazine worked their magic. For months, Magelssen was inundated by boxes and boxes of fabric scraps from people who’d read about her in the magazine. Stunned beyond words, Magelssen had no choice but to keep sewing and sewing some more, which of course she enjoyed more than ever.
One day, the Magelssens’ son, David, who lives in St. Cloud, told his parents they should move up to the St. Cloud area.
Remembering the snow and the cold, Patsy, almost by instinct, shouted: “No way!”
After mulling it over, she and her husband summoned brave gumption and changed there mind.
“And here we are!” she said, a shiver in her voice. “Putting up with it!”
The Magelssens live in South Grandview Apartments in Sartell, a three-bedroom unit, one of the rooms serving as Patsy’s sewing room. The living room, half the time, serves as a storage room. Right now, there are 46 children’s quilts in it, waiting to be distributed. They will soon be gone, but there will soon be many more to take their place as Magelssen happily sews and sews and sews some more.