Every year in the Modesto area hundreds of shoe boxes are filled with gifts for children and distributed overseas to needy children.
Operation Christmas Child is a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, a nonprofit organization run by evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham. Since 1993, more than 100 million children in more than 130 impoverished countries have received the boxes, filled with age- and gender-appropriate toys, plus a message of God’s love for them.
Although collected locally in November, the boxes aren’t distributed worldwide for several months. This year, Marlin Sena of Ceres traveled to Rwanda to give out the boxes to village children. It was an eye-opening experience, he said.
“These children have never received anything, so it was so mind-boggling to have them take the lid off the box and see all this stuff,” he said. “One boy got a yo-yo. They had no idea what it was, so we demonstrated it for them. It was fascinating to them to see this thing going up and down.”
Sena has been an Operation Christmas Child volunteer since 1999, but became a year-round volunteer four years ago. He heard about an opportunity to help distribute the boxes and jumped at the chance. Volunteers pay their own way.
Although most people who fill the boxes think they will be distributed for Christmas, it simply isn’t possible, he said.
“Most shoe boxes are distributed seven or eight months into the year,” Sena said. “Sometimes cartons are held up in customs. Transportation is hard in certain areas. Like I’ve told people, this is not Santa Claus delivering on Christmas Eve. You’re talking 9.1 million shoe boxes this past year, and it takes time to deliver them.”
He flew to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. His group visited the Kigali genocide memorial there.
“That was just devastating,” Sena said. “We were told that within 100 days back in 1994, the Tutsis and the Hutu tribes were fighting and the Hutus massacred over 1 million Tutsis. They wanted to eliminate that tribe. We were not allowed to take pictures. We did lay flowers at the massive grave sites there.”
Asked if he was fearful going to Rwanda, Sena said, “I don’t think I was afraid, but I saw what these people went through, just because they didn’t get along. The Bible says we’re to care for one another, love one another, and at that time, there was none of that. There was only hatred.”
Times have changed, and Sena said he saw schoolchildren from the two tribes mingling with one another. From Kigali, Sena’s group was taken to several villages, where they gave out the boxes at two churches and four schools. The villages were poor, with no running water or electricity.
“The groups ranged from 70 to 204 children between the ages of 3 and 13,” he said. “They were divided in the room between boys and girls and by age groups, because on the boxes, it’s divided like that. I could not tell the boys from the girls because their heads are all shaved because of lice and such things.”
No one could open a box until all had received one.
What happened if they didn’t have the right number of boxes for the right gender and age in the rooms?
“These children are not like our children. They are so excited by whatever they get,” Sena said. “This happened in one of our stops: We didn’t have enough girl boxes for a certain age, so one girl got a boy box. There was an Incredible Hulk figure, and she just picked it up and started kissing it like it was a doll.”
Sunglasses, a noisemaker like a kazoo, or a small whistle and balls were favorite toys, he said.
“The kids thought they were real cool putting sunglasses on,” Sena said. And “small stuffed animals and dolls, they would just hug these like they had something to love.”
One boy especially touched Sena’s heart, he said. “He must have been about 9 or 10 years old. He just hung around me,” Sena said. “I gave him his box, and in his box was a letter written by the person who packed the box. He wanted to know what that letter said. We got an interpreter and I read the letter to him, and he was so amazed that someone around the world would think of him and give him something. That really stood out with me. He was the cutest little guy.”
Sena was impressed by all the children, who seemed so happy. “There were lots of smiles,” he said. “Hugs are a big thing. They’re lovable and they want to hug you. They have nothing, but they entertain themselves outdoors, throwing rocks or a branch from a small tree. That’s why they liked the balls so much.”
Pastors and headmasters identify which children get the boxes.
“Rwanda was the first country in Africa to receive shoe boxes in 1995, and has received them every year. But they give them to different children every year,” Sena said. “But there’s a need for thousands of more shoe boxes.
“We looked out the window and there were children who would not receive one. That was heartbreaking.”
He hopes more local folks will join the effort to fill the shoe boxes this year when the project begins in the fall. Boxes are collected the week before Thanksgiving.
“I want more people to get involved in it,” he said. “Actually being there and handing them out, you just want to see every child receive one. You know it can’t happen, but the more people that get involved in it, the better the chance of a child receiving one.”