A simple gift (December 24, 2012)

Written by Lindor Reynolds

Published by Winnipeg Free Press on Monday, December 24, 2012

CALGARY -- Jake Klassen is smiling as he pulls his Peterbilt rig into the sprawling Samaritan's Purse parking lot. At 71, Klassen is semi-retired, driving long-distance just a few months of the year. The annual 14-hour trip to Calgary, which he shares with Helen, his wife of 49 years, is one he won't give up. Klassen is carrying what he calls "the most valuable freight I've ever hauled."

This is a story about Operation Christmas Child, but it's really a story about people who believe in God, in putting their faith into practice, and in the infinite and eternal power of a simple shoebox packed with prayer and care.

Klassen's truck is filled with 8,500 boxes from Morden, Carman and Brandon. He is part of a vast network of truckers and shipping companies who pick up almost 700,000 shoeboxes across Canada and transport them to processing centres in Calgary or Kitchener-Waterloo. Those boxes will eventually make their way to kids in developing countries.

The journey from a simple empty shoebox in the hands of a Winnipeg family to a gift of love and hope in the hands of a child across the world is complex. OCC has only 20 paid staff. They depend upon tens of thousands of volunteers to make the miracle happen. And it does, every year.

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Operation Christmas Child, informally known as Operation Shoebox, began in 1990. A Welsh couple, moved by television reports of children orphaned in war-torn Romania, filled a convoy of nine trucks with medical supplies, food, clothing and Christmas gifts. Three years later, the burgeoning charity was adopted by Samaritan's Purse, a worldwide evangelical Christian organization.

Last year, 672,000 shoeboxes were collected in Canada. Forty-one thousand came from Manitoba. Globally, 8.6 million gift-filled boxes were packed and sent. This year, OCC will collect its hundred millionth box.

The program is dead simple in theory. Take a shoebox and fill it with an average $20 worth of toys, school supplies, hygiene items and a bit of candy for a child in a developing nation. Add seven dollars for shipping. Sit back and feel good, knowing that somewhere in this world, a child will eventually receive your gift.

But putting that theory into practice is another story. In a very small window of time, hundreds of thousands of flat shoeboxes are distributed across the country, filled by families and businesses, collected at local depots, put in trucks and buses and taken to the processing centres. From there, they're packed into shipping containers and taken by rail to Vancouver, Halifax or Montreal. They end up in their final destinations, anywhere from Senegal to Guinea Bissau and points in between the next spring. Even then, they may be held up by political unrest or customs managers looking for a bribe. The charity does not pay bribes.

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Winnipeggers Deborah and Ryan Alby want their five children to understand the concept of charity. They lead a privileged life; they want their kids to understand not every child has the same opportunities. The Albys, who live in North Kildonan, attend Eastview Community Church, an evangelical parish in East St. Paul that acts as an OCC depot.

"I love it. I think it's a good thing to do for other people," says Chloe Alby, 15. "I live in a beautiful country. I live in a beautiful house. I have family. I have everything I want. If I was kid in another country, I'd feel so blessed that someone in another country cared about me."

Chloe's youth group packs the shoeboxes into larger cartons so they can be shipped to the Calgary processing centre.

Deborah Alby says in addition to the gifts, they tuck in a personal letter and a family photo.

"We want them to know that we're really people, that we're packaging these boxes with love, that when they receive these boxes, that we really care about them. The letter is well-wishes, just a little bit about us and our family so they know where the boxes came from."

Ryan Alby is an American who joined the military, married young and had a child. At 21, he was struggling financially.

"The military doesn't pay that well and the hospital bills added up. I was serving my country and working hard but it wasn't always enough. The military had a lot of good support programs, everything from bringing over a meal at Christmas and Thanksgiving or food pantry and things like that. I tried to support my family as best I could but there were times when I had to use those services.

"Every chance I get, I try to participate in those kinds of programs. I feel this sense of urgency to give back. I know those kinds of programs can make a difference in a kid's life."

Alby, who is a marketing manager for a local engineering company, moved to Canada in 2007 after falling in love with Deborah, a school psychologist.

Daughter Haley, nine, says she's fortunate to live in Canada. The shoebox program allows her family "to share our wealthiness."

Across town in Westwood, Kisa MacIsaac and Dave Ollinger have a more modest lifestyle. He's an electrician, she's an early childhood education at Freight House. Their daughter Delilah is four. Son Oren is 22 months. Like about half of OCC's supporters, they don't identify themselves as Christians.

MacIsaac says she's been filling boxes for close to 10 years. The young mom says the charity is an easy way to help.

Before she had children, MacIsaac spent three months in Tanzania volunteering with a small NGO. She and Ollinger talk to Delilah about the shoeboxes, using simple language she can understand.

"I want to instill those values at an early age," she says. "I see us moving away from materialism. I hope they (their children) will see me doing this and they'll want to do it."

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Christmas comes early to Landmark, Man. For the past six years, Ina Reimer has transformed a section of the Main Street Christian Fellowship Church into an OCC shoebox store. She started filling boxes years ago as a tribute to a relative. Other people asked her to help with their boxes. Before she knew it, she was dedicating hours to the project.

The store, run with the help of community volunteers, offers one-stop shopping place for shoeboxes. Reimer shops year round, pulling into dollar stores, liquidation stores and warehouse stores, always scouting for bargains. She stalks up and down aisles, alert for something that will fit in a shoebox. Bulk packages are broken down and put into individual Ziploc bags.

Children aged 10-14 traditionally get the fewest boxes, mostly likely because most people like to buy stuffed animals and wee T-shirts. The store has a supply of hammers, sewing kits, flashlights, calculators and deflated soccer balls for the older kids. The store volunteers offer packing tips, like putting T-shirts into a baggie and using a straw to draw out excess air. Using every centimetre of space is an art form.

Reimer says young moms love the store because their children understand the gifts are meant for the shoeboxes, not for them.

"There shouldn't be any begging because none of these things are supposed to stay in Canada."

She says there's a knack to picking appropriate items.

"The important things are not necessarily what is important to our kids. I put in books, as long as they're not materialistic. School supplies are important because while school may be free, some children can't afford paper or pens."

She sells a selection of small Bibles and other religious books and items. People filling the boxes can choose to include them, although the material will not be sent to predominantly non-Christian countries. Screeners at the processing centres do not add religious material to the boxes, nor do they remove it.

Reimer says the shoebox program in an antidote to a materialistic, self-centred world. She imagines the children who will open the boxes, and the parents who can't afford simple gifts for their kids.

"These boxes tell them someone loved them."

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The Calgary processing centre warehouse floor is the size of a couple of regulation football fields. Work stations are set up down the middle. One volunteer opens shoeboxes to remove money sent for shipping costs. The next volunteer unpacks the box, checking items to make sure they're new and not on the prohibited list. They struggle to repack the contents, using the same care and ingenuity as the donor.

An OCC mantra is "always maintain the integrity of the box." You can't move items from one box to another. At that stage, labels are checked to make sure they indicate the gender and age of the recipient.

"Each box you do, I want you to put a whole lot of love into it," volunteers are told at an orientation session. "You are going to be the last person to touch the box before the child does."

Volunteers are encouraged to pray over each box.

The next person seals the boxes with Samaritan's Purse tape, a signal to custom agents they have been inspected. The boxes are sent down a wheeled ramp to be packed into large cartons. Twenty-four standard OCC boxes fill a carton. Volunteers can fit between nine and 12 oversized containers, like backpacks or insulated bags, into a carton. The cartons are wrapped together on a pallet and stacked directly into shipping containers.

Randy Crosson, OCC director of operations, says the journey doesn't end when the shipping containers clear customs.

"They go in canoes, on camels," he says. "A lot of the places we go are really remote."

There's camaraderie and laughter. Meals are made by volunteers and served in a casual makeshift mess hall. Chaplains move around the vast warehouse, stopping for quick conversation, offering prayer to those who would like it. Volunteer Glen Sharegen herds a group of school kids around the building. When they enter the warehouse, one boy gasps.

"Wow! It's just like Costco," he says, pointing at boxes stacked to the ceiling.

"Yeah, but we're not selling anything," Sharegen smiles. "We're giving it away."

He uses the moment to give the children a quick sense of perspective.

"Our motto is 'one child, one gift, one time,' " he says, pointing to an OCC policy that sees volunteers bring boxes to a location every seven or eight years. "Put that in contrast with how many gifts you'll get this year."

Volunteers work three-hour shifts. There are so many volunteers, organizers make sure the pace is easy to ensure they don't run out of boxes before they run out of volunteers.

Manitobans Henry and Mary Friesen and Lori Plett, Mary Friesen's sister, have flown to Calgary to volunteer. Plett's been involved with OCC for years, volunteering in her hometown Landmark gift store.

"I just think it is a very good program and I wanted to do something worthwhile," she says. "I didn't realize what the end result was, the spiritual journey. You're giving the children the chance to know Jesus."

She and her husband Steve came to Calgary to volunteer three years ago. On the cab ride in from the airport, Plett is trembling with excitement. A day later, after the trio have worked three straight shifts, Mary Friesen reflects on OCC. She prepared her first box last year. This year, she and Henry took their oldest five grandchildren to prepare shoeboxes, prayed over them and took a family picture.

"This is their Christmas gift. They have so much stuff. They don't really need more."

Both women admitted to tears while they were volunteering.

"I cried today," Friesen says. "Just looking at the boxes and visualizing someone opening them ..."

Plett says she can't imagine her Christmas without the charity.

"You can talk about it, you can preach it, but when you come here and experience it, you know what caring and God's love really means."

When we part, the trio have decided to give up a free afternoon intended for Christmas shopping in Calgary to work another shift.

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Samaritan's Purse, and by association, OCC, makes no secret of the charity's Christian roots and direction. The boxes "open up a door for us," says OCC director Randy Crosson. "It disarms people."

After the shoeboxes are handed out, kids get a copy of The Greatest Gift, a book about the life of Jesus Christ. A week or so after the boxes are delivered, children are invited back for a 12-week Bible study. The program offers music, entertainment and food. Most children come back.

"Because we're a religious organization people think we're proselytizing or requiring children to become Christian," he says. He denies that, but there's no question kids get a clear nudge in the direction of God.

Frank King, communications manager for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada, is proud that no more than 10 per cent of money raised by the group goes for marketing and administration. The $7 shoebox donors are asked to contribute goes directly to shipping costs.

King says he's proud the boxes are sent to children in developing nations.

"You hear so often that charity begins at home. To be poor in Canada is nothing like being poor in Haiti. There's no United Way, no government programs, no food programs, no shelters.

"This is a great opportunity for Canadian parents to teach their children Christmas isn't about getting stuff."

Jake Klassen agrees. After a few days spent volunteering and catching up with old friends, the gentle-natured long-distance driver is still smiling.

"This is where we're called to be," he says, a fond eye on his wife, Helen. "We are so fortunate to be here."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2012