Donated shoeboxes packed with gifts delight children in developing nations (October 17, 2013)

Written by Liz Monteiro

Published by The Record on Thursday, October 17, 2013

WATERLOO REGION — For a few minutes, Damaris Vezentan felt like she was nine years old all over again.

The Kitchener mother of three gave a shoebox, similar to the one she received as a little girl in Romania, filled with goodies to a young girl in the capital city of Senegal, Dakar.

The 12-year-old Senegalese girl opened the box and looked inside. She was motionless and didn't know what to do. Vezentan recalls doing the same thing and taking her box home and not opening it for a few days.

Vezentan, 32, cried as she remembered feeling overwhelmed with barrettes, scented soap and a writing journal.

"I choked up. I felt like I was nine again," she said. "I couldn't decide who was touched more. I think it was me."

Last month, Vezentan, along with others from Samaritan's Purse International Relief, went to Senegal to distribute the Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes to about 600 children.

Vezentan and her three children prepared three boxes and she personally delivered them.

Some of the items included Disney pencils and erasers, coloured chalk, coloured pencil crayons, musical markers and a notepad. Each of the boxes had a photo of Vezentan's children.

"She took the picture of my daughter out and looked at it and held it," she said. "You think about packing something special, but they look at the photo and look at it."

For the little girl, the precious item wasn't the colourful hair clip or the stickers but the notepad.

"I love this because I can go to school. I couldn't go last year," the girl told Vezentan.

Vezentan understands how the little girl gravitated to the notepad with plain white paper. She still has the journal she received as a little girl.

"I felt like these people knew me and they were my friends," she said.

For Vezentan, going to Senegal to hand out shoeboxes was a déjà vu moment that took her back to living in Romania months after the revolution in her homeland.

"I felt gratitude. When you give you are more blessed," she said.

Operation Christmas Child is a project of the Christian group Samaritan's Purse. The organization distributes about nine million boxes to children in 100 developing countries each year.

Last year, 662,000 shoeboxes were sent from Canada to children around the world.

The shoebox project is run by volunteers here and in countries around the world. National collection week is Nov. 18 to 24. A centre will be located in Waterloo Region, but has yet to be identified.

The boxes are a balance of toys, health and hygiene items and school supplies. Toys include small dolls, small stuffed animals, balloons and rubber balls, while health items are combs, brushes, toothbrushes and soap bars. School supplies can include notepads, coloured pencils and erasers.

Some boxes even have clothes such as socks, T-shirts, shorts and toques for infants. The boxes are categorized by age: two to four, five to nine and 10 to 14.

The organization has colourful red and green boxes, but shoeboxes that most people have at home can also be used and are welcome, said Jeff Adams of Samaritan's Purse.

Vezentan, along with her parents and siblings, came to Canada when she was 15. That year her family prepared a shoebox and she's been packing them ever since.

At 18, she volunteered at the collection centre to prepare the boxes for shipment.

This year, Vezentan and her children packed 28 boxes for girls and boys. Vezentan said going to Senegal to see the children motivated her to get more involved with the shoebox project.

"This is just not a story. I've been there. It makes me want to give more," she said.

For more information on Operation Christmas Child, go to www.samaritanspurse.ca or pack a box online at www.packabox.ca

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