Offerings: Edmonton family packs thousands of gift boxes for Operation Christmas Child (November 14, 2014)

Written by Betty Walters

Published by Edmonton Journal on Friday, November 14, 2014

A visit to the Werenka home in north Edmonton in mid-October is an inspiring and almost overwhelming experience.

In the basement family room, piled up nearly to the ceiling along one wall, are several hundred Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes waiting to be filled. Along another wall are several hundred green-and-red boxes already packed with gifts.

The boxes contain items aimed at delighting children who live in poverty in far-flung parts of the world, like South and Central America and Africa: a new T-shirt or shorts, a colouring book, pencil crayons, pens, pencils, scribblers, little balls or a toy car, a comb, hair accessories, individually wrapped hard candies, a reinforced shopping bag for parents and, of course, a cuddly stuffed animal.

Erica Werenka tries to pack love and encouragement into each box, often giving the stuffed animal a kiss.

“Make sure the stuffed animal is at the top, facing up so as the child opens the box, the toy will be looking right at its new owner,” she advises those who help her pack the shoeboxes. “ Oh, and remember to add a small silk flower before the box is squished shut with an elastic band to keep it from popping open!

Packing is a well-organized operation in the Werenka family room, where last years last year more than 1,800 boxes were filled. A sheet covers the pool table that becomes the volunteers’ work table. Werenka works with a dozen boxes on the table at a time, systematically filling each of them right to the top.

Items not allowed in shoeboxes are: toothpaste, food, glass, liquids of any kind, war related items, or soft candies.

When all boxes are filled, the Werenkas borrow a large trailer to transport them to the Calgary Samaritan’s Purse processing centre. There the gift-filled shoeboxes are given a final inspection to ensure they’re safe for transport to Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela, Uruguay, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea.

In 2013, Canadians generously collected enough gifts to fill more than 669,000 shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse.

After everything is shipped away, the large family room in the Werenka home will be back to normal for awhile. Grandkids will again use the shuffle board and the pool table, and the fireplace will burn on chilly evenings and at Christma. Friends and family will come and enjoy the wonderful hospitality the Werenkas provide.

In January, Erica Werenka will begin to shop again. She begins to store shoebox items in her basement, piling up appropriate items until August. Then the family room once again becomes a maze for three months, with rows and stacks colourful school supplies, clothes and toys. For visitors, it’s certainly a sight to behold.

Many friends are caught up in the excitement and will bring items when they arrive to help fill the shoeboxes. There’s always something for each volunteer to do: packing candy bags, filling marble bags, putting age and gender labels on the boxes.

This whole venture brings such joy and satisfaction to Erica and her husband Harry and everyone gets involved. They find truth in the saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Children in the Operation Christmas Child program, regardless of their race, religion or gender, receive this unconditional gift. “There is much power in the simply gift of a shoebox. Every box is important and valuable. It means one more child receives joy and hope,” Werenka says.

Where possible, the staff of Samaritan’s Purse and volunteers who are leading the shoebox distributions will share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the children, so they can hear about the eternal gift through Jesus.

There are many heartwarming stories that come from the children who receive these shoebox gifts. One boy living in Bolivia was giving a box that contained 12 pairs of adult white tube socks. The people handing out the boxes thought it was a mistake

The boy hugged the box closer, not wanting to trade it for a regular shoe box. He said it was what he needed most, now he had 24 “bandages” so he could walk to school and keep his feet clean.

God knows the name of each child who receives a box, and He can direct the gifts to a child’s need.

Werenka orders empty boxes from Samaritan’s Purse at samaritanspurse.ca/occ. Those who want to contribute are welcome to use their own shoeboxes or purchase plastic containers similar in size as the ones provided through Operation Christmas Child.

Find out more about Operation Christmas Child and Samaritan’s Purse at samaritanspurse.ca or call 1-800-303-1269. National Collection Week is Nov. 17 - 23.

Betty Walters is an active community volunteer and a member of Mill Woods Pentecostal Assembly in Edmonton.

For more information and to make a donation, visit the Samaritan’s Purse website.

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