Pair meets a decade after Operation Christmas Child box sent to Bolivia (December 7, 2012)
Written by Tim Alamenciak
Published by The Star (Toronto) on Friday, December 7, 2012
When Paola Justiniano came to Canada on exchange she made sure to pack a picture and a faint hope of finding the little boy shown in it.
The picture - a smiling 7-year-old boy in a turtleneck and blue cardigan - came to her about a decade ago, tucked into one of the Operation Christmas Child boxes that arrived each year at her family's home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Now at 25, Justiniano has fulfilled her dream of finding Sam Kiatipis, the boy with the toothy smile who gave her a box of toys and books. The pair met for the first time in Sam's Markham home this week, both much older than when that box travelled from Canada to Bolivia.
She slid the faded photograph into her wallet before heading to Kingston, Ont. for a three-month placement at Providence Care, a medical facility with specialties in mental health and geriatric care. She was coming to expand her training as a doctor, but in the back of her mind she wanted to thank the little boy in the photo for what he had given her.
"I value … the time and the effort and the thought that went into somebody putting all these things into a box for me, but when you're a kid these things they make you happy. Opening a gift any kid gets excited," she said. "I only had it in my head that someday I was going to say to this person, 'Thank you very much'."
She held onto that photo throughout medical school in Bolivia, training to become a doctor specializing in geriatrics. She was moved to the profession as a youth by helping her mother and grandfather deal with diabetes.
After graduating last year, she set her sights on Canada for a three-month exchange that would allow her to hone her skills.
When Justiniano noticed a box sitting on one of the counters in the hospital just like the one she got as a kid, she pointed excitedly and pulled out her photo. Staff put her in touch with Gail Shillington, an X-ray technologist at Providence Care, who ran the Operation Christmas Child program there for 12 years.
"I said, 'You know how big Canada is, seriously?' " said Shillington. But then she noticed the boy's address was Markham - just a few hours from where they were. He had also written his name.
She got to work straight away finding the young boy in the picture. A quick search through the online phone directory showed a listing of a Michael Kiatipis, with the same address, listed in Gormley. She called. Karen Kiatipis, Sam's mother, answered.
"Do you have a son named Sam?" asked Shillington.
"Of course when you hear this as a mother, I'm thinking, 'What the hell has he done now?' " said Karen. But soon the two schemed to bring Sam and Justiniano together.
Sam didn't expect that anyone he ever sent one of those boxes to would get in touch.
"Not 10 years later, especially," said Sam, who is studying business at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. The group agreed that the best place for the two to meet would be at Kiatipis' family home in Markham.
Sam, who participated in Operation Christmas Child through school and church as a child, waited nervously for her arrival. He wasn't sure what to say when she got there.
It didn't matter. The door opened. The pair hugged right away, both faces beaming.
"I don't know what to say - it's exciting. I didn't see this 10 years (ago), let me tell you," said Sam, sitting on the couch.
"You need to meet my family," Justiniano told him. "It's your obligation. It's a new goal"
Sam, who turns 18 next week, got to meet her family online that night. The pair connected with Justiniano's relatives in Bolivia through Skype and they sang "Happy Birthday" to Sam in Spanish. He gave her a memento of Canada - a charm bracelet with a red maple leaf on it.
Justiniano's flight back to Bolivia leaves Monday, but the pair hope to keep in touch - they've added each other on Facebook.
"It's a small world and we have a big God," said Shillington. "And Google helped us - thank goodness for Google."