Gift-filled shoeboxes open door to changed lives (November 4, 2013)

Written by Frank King

Published by Calgary Herald on Monday, November 4, 2013

A skipping rope, hair accessories, school supplies, a skirt, a red shirt - and shoes that were too small and so they went to her little sister.

Three months after being given her gift-filled Operation Christmas Child shoebox, Adja Racky Sow can still instantly recount almost everything she received that special day.

The box of items many Canadian children would quickly forget was the first gift 10-year-old Adja had ever received. Where she lives, in the West African nation of Senegal, poverty is so crushing that many parents can't afford to give their children gifts at Christmas, birthdays, or any other time.

It's a key reason Samaritan's Purse has distributed more than 130,000 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes in Senegal during the past year and, with help from Canadians again this month, is aiming to distribute even more in 2014.

"(The gifts) mean a lot to me," Adja says shyly. She is wearing the best clothes she owns to look presentable for Canadian visitors assessing the impact of Operation Christmas Child, an annual project of Samaritan's Purse that has distributed more than 100 million gift-filled shoeboxes to needy children around the world in the past 20 years.

Adja lives on Goree Island, just off the coast from Dakar, Senegal's capital city. The island features colourful and cheerful houses that contrast starkly Goree's horrific past. For more than 300 years, the island was one of the main centres for brutally housing millions of slaves before they were shipped off to Europe, the United States and Latin America.

It's this tragic history that Senegal and many other West African countries are still contending with today, along with widespread poverty and a lack of basic infrastructure. And it's why Samaritan's Purse Canada is active in the region.

Operation Christmas Child often has opened the doors for the Calgary-based Christian relief and development organization to learn about and respond to other community needs. In Senegal, that means supporting an innovative agriculture project and helping young street beggars get a new start.

The Beer-Sheba agriculture project, south of Dakar, teaches farmers to grow food without costly pesticides and fertilizers. The idea, says founder Eric Toumieux, is for farmers to earn enough money to survive and thrive without damaging their land.

Under Toumieux's leadership, and with Samaritan's Purse Canada's financial support, Beer-Sheba is growing corn, cabbage, watermelons, peanuts and other crops on land that used to be desert-like because local farmers - modelling western methods - would cut down all the trees. Instead, Beer-Sheba's crops are growing in small clearings, surrounded by trees and shrubs that have been planted to guard against soil erosion.

"In 2002 (when the project started) ... the biodiversity had been reduced to six (tree) species," recalls Toumieux. Now, after his team has planted tens of thousands of trees, there are 60 indigenous species spread across the project's 100 hectares.

Toumieux's team also buys wandering, starving cattle, feeds them well and then sells the meat (butchered at their own processing facility) to restaurants and other clients.

"The aim is to train farmers, but also provide resources for the (local) school to be financially independent," said Toumieux. Composting is a fact of life at Beer-Sheba, and so is solar power. There is also an extensive irrigation system, which generous Samaritan's Purse donors have helped fund, while also building a school classroom and dormitory.

Beer-Sheba's success has Samaritan's Purse eager to duplicate the project in other poverty-plagued rural parts of the developing world, if donations make that possible.

Meanwhile, far from the tranquil peace of Beer-Sheba, thousands of boys wander the streets of Dakar, begging for money. They are known as the Talibe - children entrusted by needy parents to spiritual leaders for education in this mostly Muslim nation.

Unfortunately, the education often falls short, and the children spend most of their days trying to collect enough money to meet their daily quota - or risk a beating if they don't.

International workers Carlos and Gabriela (names have been changed to protect privacy) moved to Senegal and started a ministry to help Senegal's Talibe. They rented a building and began offering the boys free breakfast and lunch, plus a shower. Eventually, that grew to include vocational training through a restaurant they opened in Dakar.

The restaurant's profits, with support from Samaritan's Purse and other groups, pay for the breakfast and lunch program and enable the couple to offer moral and spiritual instruction, and training as a cook, waiter or other restaurant role.

Hundreds of young people have gone through the program - and turned their backs on lives of poverty and street begging to become productive and hopefilled citizens.

Without this program, "my life would be spoiled," says 17-year-old Nicolas (name has been changed to protect privacy), who arrived at the street ministry 18 months ago speaking only a tribal dialect, rather than French, which is Senegal's national language. "I would be like the street beggars. Now, I'm linked with people who showed me God's love and taught me French."

Nicolas wants to be a musician, but is biding his time by learning business skills and working at the restaurant: "The work I'm doing here teaches me how to have a job."

Back on Goree Island, little Adja doesn't know about Samaritan's Purse's projects to help struggling farmers or street beggars. But she does know something about Canadians who pack Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts.

"They are nice people," she says. "They love me. That's why they sent me this box."

National Collection Week, when you can drop off your gift-filled Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes at local collection centres, is Nov. 18 to 24. To find your nearest collection centre, or for suggestions about what to put in shoeboxes, go to You're also welcome to pack boxes by purchasing all of the items online at

Frank King is communications manager for Samaritan's Purse Canada.