East Valley residents began their annual collection of Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts Thursday night with a goal of collecting 15,000 gift-filled boxes this year.
“Our purpose is to share God’s love together,” said Robin Earle, the area team coordinator.
Operation Christmas Child is a charity that sends Christmas presents in shoe boxes to poor and under privileged children in developing countries. The shoe boxes are filled with stuffed animals, toys, candy school supplies and hygiene products. Each box also contains a book about Jesus written in the child’s native language.
Boxes are filled by individuals and collected at area churches, Earle said. From the churches, termed relay centers, the boxes are transferred to the area collection center.
In the East Valley, Grace Community Church will serve as the collection center, Earle said. From Grace, the boxes will be packed up and shipped to Colorado, where they will be organized and distributed to 130 countries. Each country that receives boxes then distributes them to children in orphanages, group homes and schools.
For the group that met at Grace Community Church, one such recipient told her story of receiving a box more than 10 years ago.
Luba Travis, 19, now lives in Redding, Calif., but before she was adopted by an American family at age 7, she and her older two older siblings lived in an orphanage in Moldova, a country nestled between Ukraine and Romania.
“I thought the box was a sign,” Travis said. “It was a symbol that my life was going to get better.”
The orphanage didn’t provide much food, Travis said. Instead her two older siblings stole food to feed themselves and Travis. She didn’t learn much in school, Travis said, because she feared the teachers to much.
When she received her box, the man who handed it to her said, “I love you. Jesus loves you. Enjoy the gift.” It was the first time anyone had said the word “love” to her and the first time she received a gift, she recalled.
Inside her box she found a teddy bear, toothpaste, a toothbrush, watermelon lip balm, candy and a slinky.
“I felt my stomach grumbling when I smelled the toothpaste,” remembered Travis. “So I ate it.”
Travis also had lice at the time, so when she pulled out the toothbrush, she assumed it was a brush for her shortly cropped hair.
“I loved watermelon rind,” Travis said with a smile, describing her forages through trashcans for the treat. “It was my delicacy, my favorite.”
When she saw and saw the lip balm, she again thought it was something to eat, she said.
“Those Americans are so weird,” she recounted thinking. “They put a whole watermelon in a little tube.”
But when she saw the candy, she knew that was definitely meant for eating, describing how she put all of the pieces in her mouth at the same time.
“I looked like a squirrel with cheeks filled with acorns,” Travis said with a laugh and gesturing big checks with her hands.
Before the delivery, missionaries had visited the orphanage, but Travis became disheartened by their message.
“If Jesus can raise a dead man from his grave, why do I wish I was dead?” Travis remembered thinking as a six-year-old girl. “If Jesus can feed 5,000, why can’t he feed a little girl?”
When she received the box, she prayed to herself, “Okay Lord, if you’re real you’re going to give me a family.”
She waited a couple of seconds, and then opened her eyes. No family. Clearly, Jesus wasn’t real. However, a couple of hours later, Travis and her twin siblings were told they were going to be adopted. She’s now a college student at Shasta College.
“I accepted Jesus because of this little box—filled with things we take for granted,” Travis said. “If I got this box now for my 20th birthday, I’d be pretty disappointed. I’d want an iPod or something. But for these kids, these gifts mean everything.”
As for the teddy bear Travis received, she left it behind for the other kids at the orphanage.
“I knew there would be lots of toys in America,” she said.
This holiday season marks the 100 millionth box to be delivered by Operation Christmas Child and it can only happen one box at a time, Earle said.
“If you did a box last year, could you do two this year?” Earle asked the group. “If you did five last year, could you do 10 this year?”
Boxes can be of any size, said Gilbert coordinator, Kay Long. However, it’s best if the boxes are average sized.
“If one kid sees that another has a larger box, they think, ‘That’s not fair, her box is bigger,’” Long said.
Boxes also need $7 donation to pay for shipping. If purchased online, donators can track the progress of their box as it travels across the world.
The Southeast Phoenix region includes Tempe, Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, Ahwatukee, Casa Grande, Globe and Maricopa.
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