Partners for the Gospel: Samaritan's Purse and Herschend Family Entertainment

September 28, 2016 • United States
Jack Herschend celebrates Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes at Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri.
Jack Herschend celebrates Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes at Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri.

Herschend joins with Operation Christmas Child for its annual Shoebox Challenge

One winter day in the early 1960s, Jack and Pete Herschend sat down on a log in their amusement park in the Ozarks, Silver Dollar City, and had a meeting with God. The two brothers, 28 and 26 respectively at the time, had both recently become Christians and decided then and there to invite the Lord to take control of their thriving business.

“Out of that came our plan and we’ve been blessed exceedingly because we asked ourselves, ‘What’s the real reason God gave us this business?’” said Jack Herschend.

From that time on, they worked to display their faith in action to their guests and employees.

Both packing shoeboxes and attending attractions can make memories and draw families closer together.

Both packing shoeboxes and attending attractions, like Dollywood, can make memories and draw families closer together.

That legacy of faith continues in their company even now with 24 properties in seven states employing 12,000 people in peak season. “Our vision statement says we best serve the Lord when we bring families closer together,” Jack said. That’s done by creating memories worth repeating.

Jason Blain, a 20-year company veteran who serves as vice president of strategic alliances, says, “We want your day at one of our attractions to be the best day of your year.” Jason notes that their corporate documents explicitly state they do everything “in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics.”

The Shoebox Challenge

One example of how their Christian faith impacts their business is the Shoebox Challenge. In this annual program, initiated in 2010, HFE encourages churches to earn complimentary tickets to award-winning attractions by packing as many Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes as possible. The parks offering the Shoebox Challenge are Dollywood (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee), Silver Dollar City (Branson, Missouri), Stone Mountain Park (Stone Mountain, Georgia), Adventure Aquarium (Camden, New Jersey), Wild Adventures (Valdosta, Georgia), Newport Aquarium (Newport, Kentucky), and partner attraction Elitch Gardens (Denver, Colorado). [For full Challenge details, visit shoeboxchallenge.com.]

“In 2016, our goal is to reach 750,000 shoeboxes,” Jason said.

HFE staff (pictured from Dollywood) get involved with packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes as well.

HFE staff (pictured from Dollywood) get involved with packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes as well.

Complimentary tickets can be used however a church decides. In the past, some have gone to underprivileged families, church staff, or teens who cannot afford their youth group’s outing to an attraction.

The Shoebox Challenge reflects our founders because we are completely comfortable talking about our Christian faith in public,” said Chris Herschend, Pete’s middle son and vice chairman of the board of directors.

Of the 20 Silver Dollar City tickets earned last year by First Christian Church, Burlington, Iowa, many went to members of the church, but eight went to a family outside the church who could not afford to go on vacation. They were deeply grateful for this gift valued at almost $500.

“It’s easy to sign up,” said Rick Mellinger of First Christian Church. “It’s all online. Anyone can do it.”

Humble Beginnings

Jack and Pete’s father, Hugo, emigrated from Denmark at age 19 and eventually settled in Chicago where he met his wife Mary. As a family, they vacationed in the Ozarks, about a day’s drive from their home. But in 1950, it became more than a holiday location when they leased Marvel Cave and began using their savings to make improvements on the property. Just five years later, Hugo died of a heart attack, leaving Mary and the boys to manage the business.

“I was serving in the Marine Corps in Southern California when our father died,” Jack said. “It was a tough decision because I enjoyed the Marine Corps, but it was important to come back and help my mother run Marvel Cave.”

In the late 1950s, the Herschends built an 1880s Ozark village just outside of Marvel Cave. As a marketing plan, they gave silver dollar coins as change for any purchases made in the park, which prompted the eventual name of the attraction, Silver Dollar City. Today it remains one of HFE’s most popular attractions.

Jack and Pete have now retired and turned the leadership of their company over to others, but their legacy lives on. Chris said, “They imprinted the company so effectively in the first 15 to 20 years. It’s like a great battery pack that keeps recharging. We’re still running on the fuel of the culture they created.”

It’s Personal

The Herschend family (distinct from the company) now includes 21 households strong, with missionaries, lawyers, artists, franchisees, and full-time dads in the mix. They gather twice a year to celebrate, discuss, and grow together. Responsible for selecting HFE’s independent board of directors, they release the group to govern with just three shareholder objectives: keep Christ at the heart, make it a great place to work, and grow.

Even the youngest shoebox packers appreciate the Shoebox Challenge.

Even the youngest shoebox packers appreciate the Shoebox Challenge.

Even as HFE issues the Shoebox Challenge to churches in the areas surrounding seven of their attractions, the Herschend family itself financially invests in helping children take further steps of faith. “The Greatest Journey has turned us on in a whole other way,” Chris said, speaking of the 12-lesson Samaritan’s Purse discipleship program for boys and girls who have received a shoebox through Operation Christmas Child. The Herschends are committed to seeing children worldwide learn how to faithfully follow Christ and share Him with others.

“I would challenge any business owner to think about the hidden ways their business can be used,” Chris said. “Don’t settle for corporate social responsibility. Think of your business as an extension of yourself. What can you do with what you’ve been given? I’ve never seen God respond to an earnest request for opportunity like that with a shrug of the shoulders.”

Jack sums up the vision of global service and evangelism shared between Samaritan’s Purse and HFE: “Operation Christmas Child gives us the opportunity to go way beyond the United States—to go internationally to serve kids, to serve parents, and to bring families closer together and closer to the Lord.”

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