Delivering Warm Hugs in Shoeboxes

November 1, 2017 • United States
Ed and Carol Ely
Ed and Carol Ely started a ministry called Lamb's Wool to knit sweaters for children at Christmas. They have partnered with Operation Christmas Child since 1997.

Since 1997, Lamb’s Wool has donated over 20,000 hand-knit sweaters to Operation Christmas Child to bring warmth and love to needy children overseas.

Carol Ely

Carol Ely and the 20,000th hand-knit sweater donated to Operation Christmas Child.

For the past two decades, Ed and Carol Ely have made an annual autumn ramble down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Virginia to Samaritan’s Purse international headquarters in North Carolina. And just as sure as the leaves turn crimson and gold in October, the couple’s arrival is a much-anticipated event for the staff at the Operation Christmas Child processing center.

The Elys come bearing special gifts—colorful handmade children’s sweaters—that have been fashioned with love by a network of knitters from across the United States.

Carol’s ministry, Lamb’s Wool, has been partnering with Samaritan’s Purse and our Operation Christmas Child project since 1997. She and Ed transport the sweaters to Boone, where warehouse staff and volunteers will tuck them into shoeboxes with toys and school supplies for delivery to boys and girls in need overseas.

You Can Pack a Shoebox

Our staff helped the couple unload bag after bag of the cozy creations—1,148 sweaters in all—when the Elys pulled up in their rental van last month.

“I call these sweaters hugs,” Carol commented as she displayed a variety of designs on a table in the processing center. Some were single color, many had stripes, but each one was unique. One sweater was adorned with a fuzzy-tailed lion. Others featured a menagerie of teddy bears, a white cat with blue button eyes, and marching purple dinosaurs.

Carol held up one sweater with multicolored stripes of purple, orange, white, and green. “This is the one!” she announced to the group with a beaming smile. “This is our 20,000th sweater.”

“I call these sweaters hugs.”

She received that sweater from a knitter in Tennessee in July. Several hundred more sweaters were mailed to the Elys during the next few months, raising the total number collected over the past 21 years to 20,896.

That’s a lot of sweaters—and a whole lot of hugs.

Launching Lamb’s Wool

Carol is a cosmopolitan city girl from the New Jersey suburbs. Ed is a Nebraska Cornhusker and a 20-year Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. They met in Washington, D.C., at a business conference, married the following spring, and have been through thick and thin together for over 33 years.

While in Boone, the Elys visited with Jim Harrelson, Operation Christmas Child Vice President, and Franklin Graham.

While in Boone, the Elys visited with Jim Harrelson, Operation Christmas Child Vice President, and Franklin Graham.

Their demanding careers—Ed in the computer software industry, Carol in real estate and investment management—necessitated moves to four states. In 1995, the couple opted for a slower pace of life and retired to bucolic Nelson County, Virginia, made famous by the classic television series “The Waltons.”

One quiet December evening, Carol was sitting in their farmhouse family room when she felt the Lord prompt her to ask people to knit sweaters for children at Christmas. The thought seemed to come out of nowhere and took her by surprise.

After all, she hadn’t knitted in nearly 40 years, and she didn’t have children or grandchildren.

She stayed awake that night praying for God’s guidance. Before daylight she had a name for the project—Lamb’s Wool. The Lord also gave her a theme verse: Matthew 25:36.

A young girl in Africa received this Lamb's Wool sweater in her Operation Christmas Child shoebox.

A young girl in Africa received this Lamb’s Wool sweater in her Operation Christmas Child shoebox.

But Carol wondered most how she could initiate such a venture. At the time, the Elys were experiencing severe financial struggles due to a failed business partnership, and for that past year had been getting by on a $20 per week grocery budget.

“I could have said to God, ‘when I have some more money, I will be glad to do this.’ Or I could have said, ‘ask someone else,’” Carol reflected. “But I just answered Him with ‘OK, I will do it.’”

She sensed God’s direction to donate the sweaters to Operation Christmas Child, so Carol contacted Samaritan’s Purse staff in Boone and learned that small sizes can be used as filler items for the shoeboxes. The next step was finding knitters.

Carol designed a brochure and took it to a local printer to get 20 copies made. Whether it was an error or an act of kindness Carol doesn’t know, but she considered it divine intervention when the printer handed her 200 brochures and did not charge her for the extras.

Lamb's Wool provides creative, colorful, and unique sweaters.

Lamb’s Wool provides creative, colorful, and unique sweaters.

She mailed them to everyone she knew—relatives, friends, churches, various Christian television ministries, and national knitting publications. During that first year, dozens of knitters responded, yielding 168 sweaters.

Lamb’s Wool seemed to really take off the following year when the editor of Knitter’s Magazine mentioned the program in her weekly syndicated newspaper column.

Since then, mostly through word of mouth, the circle of knitters has widened as more individuals, churches, knitting clubs, and senior citizen groups join the cause. At last count, Carol says there have been Lamb’s Wool participants in over 25 states stretching from Virginia to California. She also works with a knitter in Canada and one in the Netherlands.

Knit with a Purpose

Many of the knitters are retirees who see Lamb’s Wool as an opportunity for them to take part in ministry to children overseas from their living rooms.

One Florida knitter joined the program in its first year and made one sweater a month for seven years. An elderly widow, she told Carol that the program helped give her a reason to live. She continued to churn out sweaters for as long as her health would allow, passing away in 2004 at the age of 101.

These children in Georgia were displaced by the conflict with Russia. They received Lamb's Wool sweaters during an Operation Christmas Child distribution in 2008.

These children in Georgia were displaced by the conflict with Russia. They received Lamb’s Wool sweaters during an Operation Christmas Child distribution in 2008.

The knitters have also deeply enriched Carol’s life. She sends each participant a thank-you note. Some stay in touch with her a few times a year, sending jars of jelly, Christmas ornaments, recipes, and graduation and wedding announcements.

The encouragement of her Lamb’s Wool family helped Carol persevere when she was blindsided by a series of health challenges that began in 2002—first heart issues that required two procedures, then breast cancer, and ongoing problems from a rare disease that has weakened her skeletal muscles. She still has difficulty walking and battles fatigue, but nothing has stopped her from continuing the work she knows the Lord has called her to do.

“God didn’t give me an end date,” she replied. “I don’t know what He has in mind, but I’m going to keep going.”

To learn more about the program, please write to Carol Ely at the following address: Lamb’s Wool, P.O. Box 250, Roseland, VA 22967.

Knitters from more than 25 states have participated in Lamb's Wool and made colorful sweaters for children in need. These sweaters are bringing much joy to children in need who receive the sweaters inside their Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift.

Knitters from more than 25 states have participated in Lamb’s Wool and made colorful sweaters for children in need. These sweaters are bringing much joy to children in need who receive the sweaters inside their Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift.


Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, works with local Christians in more than 100 countries to deliver gift-filled shoeboxes to children in need. The Greatest Journey is our 12-lesson follow-up discipleship course for children who have received shoebox gifts. 

You can be a part of this exciting international evangelistic outreach by prayerfully packing a gift-filled shoebox! Learn how to pack a shoebox. You can also volunteer at a processing center.

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