Operation Christmas Child makes impact (June 16, 2012)

Written by Clarise Klassen

Published by Portage Daily Graphic on Saturday, June 16, 2012

Even after three Operation Christmas Child distribution trips, Jake Klassen is still surprised at what item a child will find special in their shoebox full of gifts.

In a tiny village near Artigas in northern Uruguay, the MacGregor-area resident presented a shoebox from Hazel M. Kellington School in Neepawa to a six-year-old girl named Abrielle. When Abrielle opened the shoebox, she was instantly drawn to a Winnipeg Jets water bottle.

"You should have seen it. She would not let it go," Jake said with a big grin and a shake of his head.

Although she had never heard of the Jets, the South American girl may have never seen a water bottle before or never had one of her own, he pointed out. He chose Abrielle for the gift, because the box had quite a few items which she could share with her three sisters.

At that same distribution, Klassen remembers a girl dressed mainly in pink received a pink-themed shoebox while the same happened for a girl dressed in purple. Since the shoeboxes are sealed from the time they leave the two Canadian Operation Christmas Child processing centres until they are opened by a child in a second or third world country, the distribution volunteers have no idea what is inside.

"We just believe that the right child receives the right gift," said Klassen, an OCC volunteer since 2003. "We pray for that and we see it happen on these distributions."

He presented a shoebox from his home church, Bagot Community Chapel, to a six-year-old named Mary in the city of Melo. Mary had one older and two younger sisters: Ina, Yvonne and Savannah.

"The box was very full - a Rubbermaid - and I hoped to give the box to a girl with lots of sisters to share with. Her favourite thing was the My Little Pony."

Most children have no idea they are going to receive a present when they are invited to a community party hosted by a church in their neighbourhood, Klassen explained. The parties include a variety of entertainment including clowns and singing. The gifts are a surprise.

"Their whole concept of self-worth (is improved). When they receive a box they feel important. It's a big day for them," Klassen explained.

Third Shoebox Journey

His shoebox distribution trip to Uruguay from March 9-19 was his third with OCC. He first travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico in the spring of 2005, followed by a trip to Costa Rica in 2010, accompanied by his wife Helen. Klassen feels blessed to have been able to witness distributions in three different countries, due in part to his continued commitment to OCC, a project of Samaritan's Purse, which is a Christian international relief organization headed by Franklin Graham.

There were two key things that made this trip to Uruguay unique, he said. For one, the sun was in the wrong place. Being south of the equator for the first time in his life, Klassen was surprised to have the sun in his eyes when his team travelled north from the capital of Montevideo, on Uruguay's southern border, to Tacuarembó, in north central Uruguay. The country is located between Argentina and Brazil.

When they arrived in Tacaurembó, Jake and the rest of his team were able to witness churches picking up their cartons of shoeboxes at the national distribution centre to hand out in their neighbourhoods. Some came in pickups or transport trucks, while one arrived with a horse and cart to pick up four cartons of shoebox gifts from Canada. The Uruguayan OCC National Leadership Team had planned a national distribution day on March 17, where 200 churches handed out their boxes on the same day. The NLT estimates there are currently 800,000 children in Uruguay in the 2-14 age range. They believe they have distributed 200,000 boxes since the program came to Uruguay.

OCC in Manitoba

What initially attracted Klassen to OCC?

He and his wife saw a need they could fill: to transport shoeboxes collected in western and south central Manitoba to the OCC processing centre in Calgary. When they helped deliver about 300 shoeboxes from the Portage area to Brandon in 2002, they found Brandon and later Morden were having problems finding a reliable and expeditious way to get those donations to Calgary. Klassen, a trucker since 1986, volunteered his semi-trailer and has been picking up boxes from the Morden and Brandon regional collection centres ever since. He also found other truckers willing to help transport shoeboxes from the other parts of Manitoba, including Portage.

Klassen is also an active member of the Portage-area OCC team, promoting the charity in rural areas around the city, and willing to share the stories of his distribution trips with anyone willing to hear them.

Since 2002, he has seen the number of shoeboxes from the Portage area grow from 300 to over 2,000.

"It's obviously very exciting to see the increase in the numbers and more people getting involved locally. That's wonderful because I have seen firsthand what a difference a shoebox makes in the life of a child," Klassen said with a smile.

He has also been able to see how the shoeboxes open the doors for Samaritan's Purse to help communities in other ways. "Beyond the Box" projects have included the construction of schools, providing safe water, disaster response, wheelchair distributions, agricultural and livestock programs and small business programs.

He hopes more Central Plains residents will fill shoeboxes for children in desperate circumstances this fall. National Collection Week is Nov. 19-25. Klassen advises people to start looking for items to put into boxes now, such as summer T-shirts, school supplies, and so on.

For more information about OCC, check out samaritanspurse.ca/occ.