A Christmas story: In a poor Romanian town, a shoebox of presents means everything (December 10, 2012)

Written by Dianne Wood

Published by The Record on Monday, December 10, 2012

WATERLOO - Damaris Vezentan was just nine years old when the pastor in the poor Romanian town where she lived got the phone call that brought the children running.

The word went out: all schoolchildren should come to the Baptist church. Important people were in town. There would be "surprises'' and presents for the children.

There was also some mention of "shoeboxes.''

When Vezentan and her friends got to the church, they saw a lot of "really happy'' strangers carrying stacks of colourfully decorated shoeboxes.

The children were told to line up. They assumed there would be a box for each family, Vezentan recalled.

When the visitors starting handing a box to each child, "I was shocked,'' said Vezentan, who is now 31 and living in Kitchener.

The children in line had looked ahead and counted the stacked boxes to try and figure out which one they would get. Vezentan really wanted the glittery box wrapped in the "pink, very pretty wrapping paper. All the girls wanted it,'' she said.

And it came to her. But when she saw the sad face of her best friend beside her, she decided to swap with her.

Vezentan got a box covered in gold wrapping paper with Santas on it.

When she lifted the lid, she gasped. It was definitely not second best.

"I opened the lid and I just closed it back,'' she said. "Then I opened it again. I could not believe how beautiful it was.''

Inside was a little porcelain doll with curly brown hair worn in a pony tail. There were "lots of pretty hair clips'' she had never seen before, and a "pretty wrapped soap that smelled so good.''

One of her favourite items was a small journal with a lock. Inside, the pages were all different colours. The cover was decorated with flowers and butterflies.

For Vezentan, who loved to read and write, this was no coincidence.

"It seemed the box was meant for me. The person who made my box knew what I wanted,'' she said Monday at the Waterloo warehouse for Operation Christmas Child, where thousands of boxes are being collected to send to needy children overseas.

Vezentan has volunteered to pack Christmas shoeboxes at the warehouse for almost 12 years. Her family came to Canada in 1996. She has three children.

"I truly believe one shoebox makes a difference in the life of a child. It has in mine,'' she said.

In Romania, her family lived in Lupeni, a small town in the mountains. It was a dark, "gloomy'' mining town often enveloped in a cloud of smoke.

Communism had ended in 1989. Outside visitors started coming in a few years later.

The town was "in the middle of nowhere,'' she said. "It was a very big deal to receive shoeboxes in that area.''

Whenever relief had come in before, it was usually clothes, food and candy, never gifts for children.

Many children had nothing. Vezentan and her sister and brother at least got an orange for Christmas because their father was a mechanic.

The strangers who came that day brought cheer to the children and taught them "what joy looks like for Christmas,'' she said.

She walked around with her box for several days.

"I wouldn't touch the things inside,'' she said.

She was even careful not to tear the wrapping paper.

"We hardly got any gifts, let alone wrapped up,'' she said. "Everything about that gift was precious.''

Inside her box was a photo of a mom and dad and two boys.

If she could find them today, she would "thank them for following their heart and putting what was best for me'' in the box.

"I would thank them for loving a stranger so much."

That family's act has had a ripple effect. A little girl was so impacted that she is now packing shoeboxes with her children.

Paula Schneider, assistant manager at the Operation Christmas Child warehouse, said staff became aware of Vezentan's story last month.

Since then, she's shared it with volunteers packing boxes at the warehouse several times.

"She had everybody in tears at the end,'' Schneider said. "It was so beautiful.''

Operation Christmas Child brings hopes to children in desperate situations around the world by collecting and distributing gift-filled shoe boxes. The boxes are filled with hygiene items, school supplies, toys, candy and a message of God's love.

Operation Christmas Child is run by Samaritan's Purse, a Christian organization headed by Franklin Graham.

The Waterloo warehouse has processed just over 263,000 boxes since Nov. 24. Volunteers inspect and pack boxes for three weeks.

Anyone who still wants to pack a box can do it online at PackaBox.ca.

Vezentan kept only the journal from her shoebox. She gave the other items to her best friend before leaving Romania.

She hopes to someday go on a distribution trip with Operation Christmas Child where she'll get a chance to hand a shoebox to a child herself.

"I get a chance to do for a child what someone else had done for me,'' she said.

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