Former Operation Christmas Child Recipient Gives Back to Less Fortunate (November 4, 2014)

Written by Cam Hutchinson with Jodi Schellenberg

Published by Saskatoon Express on Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Htoo Htaa received a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child when he was living in a refugee camp (Photo by Sandy Hutchinson)

Htoo Htaa was six or seven years old when he received a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child. Sixteen years later, he is filling them.

Sitting inside the front entrance of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, he smiles and shakes his head as he scrolls through photos of the refugee camp where he grew up.

Htaa’s family fled during the civil war in Burma, with a camp in Thailand becoming their safe haven.

“Look at this,” he said, displaying a photograph on his phone. “This is exactly where we were when we got the shoeboxes.”

On his smart phone, he shows a picture of the classroom where Operation Christmas Child gifts were handed out. It doesn’t look anything like a classroom here.

“Basically there was nothing,” he said of life in the camp. “When you get something new as a kid, you are just so excited.”

There were a variety of items in Htaa’s box.

“I got a toothbrush and toothpaste and I went and used it right after I got it. I remember that part,” he said with a laugh.

He also received clothing and a couple of toys. His parents didn’t have a lot, so Christmas was usually small and quiet. The shoebox brightened one.

Christmases have been much better since the family immigrated to Canada seven years ago. Htaa, now 23, has been working at Parr Autobody, and is now learning the trade at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

He was working at Parr one day when he heard other employees talking about filling shoeboxes as a donation to Operation Christmas Child.

Htaa’s ears perked up.

“They were collecting money and talking about shoebox stuff and I was, ‘I used to get one of those when I was a kid. That’s where it came from.’ I thought they just bought it and sent it overseas. I didn’t know they had to collect it.”

Now he is involved and has filled shoeboxes to send to people living in circumstances like he once did.
“Can you imagine being a child and you have nothing? And they give toys and other things you never see. That’s pretty cool.”

Sheri Smith, a Saskatoon volunteer with Operation Christmas Child, says stories like Htaa’s make the work rewarding.

“It was amazing to think that someone that far away made it here and is making a better life for himself and is succeeding. We like to think that is in part because of the power of that gift. It gave them hope and encouragement and it really helps change people.

“Some of these people have nothing. And then when they get that, it does give them hope and it inspires them. To know that he is here and building a life, you know you did the right thing and you know you helped empower someone.”

Smith had a first-hand look at the program in 2010, when she travelled with a group to Paraguay.

“I remember one particular distribution,” she said. “We were walking up this dirt road and the wild chickens and cows are running all over the place. And we finally caught a ride, and it would be just what you would imagine in your dreams or see in movies. We all jumped on this rickety old truck with this flat deck on it. We all sat in the back. There were wooden chicken crates and stuff on there.”

When they arrived at their destination, there were 2,000 children waiting for them. Smith worried that there might not be enough shoeboxes.

“There were so many times when I was sure we were going to run out of boxes, but for some reason, because you know you are doing good work, there are always enough. It just worked out. It’s pretty special.”

Smith shared another story that moved her. She said a girl, who could be no more than 12, carried a sibling on her hip for more than three hours to get to the distribution point.

“The volunteers, with her permission of course, took the little one, and we gave him food. We sat with him so this young girl could actually go and play with the kids and be a kid. It was obvious she was in a mother-type role. Here she is at the young age of 12, assuming such responsibilities.”

Volunteers sent the girl home with a backpack full of items for her family.

“Coming back from this experience, it really reminds you to keep things in perspective. The things we are so privileged to have really for the most part, short of our health and family, it’s stuff. It’s stuff. I can’t help but think, ‘Does this add value to my life?’

“If it doesn’t add value to my life, do we really need it? We don’t. It is pretty easy making decisions moving forward after that experience. You realize just how much stuff there is in the world. That is the part that hit me the most. They have nothing and are so happy and joyful in this moment. It’s quite something.”

Sixteen years later, Htaa remains grateful for the shoebox he received. Now it’s his turn to help.

“I think it is very important to help a kid that doesn’t see (much),” he said. “I was just so happy as a kid. I will help out. It is just something so special for me.

“I would love to give away and share what I have. It is a really personal experience. It is hard to explain and hard to say (what it means) … I want to say thank you to those who give all the gifts.”

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