The Shoebox Collection - Operation Christmas Child
Of all the things we do as a tradition here in our wee house, filling and donating a shoebox is something we can never ignore.
In 2005 I was lucky enough to visit one of the places that receive these donated shoeboxes - Romania. I asked Operation Christmas Child if I could go somewhere to raise more awareness, and I paid for my trip personally.
I asked in the November when we had managed an amazing collection of almost 500 boxes in the school where I was Head of SEN - and in the following July I joined four other women. We travelled from Devon to Gatwick and the following morning flew to Romania. Then we took a smaller flight to a different part of the country before a two-hour road trip to our destination.
We stayed in what passed for a youth hostel with breakfast provided.
The complex around the hostel was locked, and there were guards outside the gates. We were locked into our compound each night.
As it was late evening and we hadn't eaten since the flight from Gatwick, we asked the guards - using very broken English and what passed for charades - about access to food. One guard called over a taxi driver who spoke English and he said he could get us some pizza. We handed over some Lei - the Romanian currency - and an hour later two large pizzas arrived in a carrier bag. They were pea pizzas. No tomato base, but what looked like melted cheese and tinned peas on top. We were ravenous by then, so they were demolished with a bottle of wine bought at the duty free. (But I don't recommend pea pizza..)
We didn't know exactly what was going to happen in the coming week.
The next day we were collected by a minibus and taken to a hospital for orphans with disabilities.
This was one of the most moving things in my entire life.
The most disabled children here spent the whole of their lives in this hospital, and it was honestly like a scene from a Charles Dickens book. The children had a space for their bed or cot, and their clothes were in a small box under the bed. That was the sum of their own belongings. The main room - about 4 metres by 12 - had rubber matting on the floor and the children who were able to sat here all day. There were no toys. The children had carers there who were sat and playing with them, or feeding, or changing them; but nothing to stimulate their minds. The disabilities were incredibly complex - children born without a pelvis being just one of them.
I fell instantly in love with one beautiful little lad who was about 15 months old. He was stood up in his cot and making simple repeated backwards and forwards movements. I asked our guide to find out what his disability was, and the answer came that he was born from a soldier and a local girl who had not given her permission. He was an unwanted baby. This broke my heart, to think of the many women who tried and failed to have kids, and here were children who were simply unwanted. Under his bed, with his meagre bedding and clothes was the lid of a Samaritan's Purse shoebox. One of the carers told us that the picture made him happy.
At home I had gathered a collection of money to take with me to donate to the charity - more than £1500 collected and donated from the kids at school with fundraisers all year in addition to what the five of us women were able to give. When I told the carers I had money to give them, they were blown away.
I wanted to buy just what those children needed - and wanted. We had the use of a minibus and a driver, so we wrote out a list of needs and asked to be taken to a shop where we could buy these things. The driver told us it was sensible to buy Romanian-made things as anything made in the UK could be seen as valuable and there would be a risk of the large items going on the black market.
The driver took us to a large warehouse-looking place. It was like the warehouse part of an IKEA, but they had everything from mattresses to toothbrushes and more.
Mattresses were on our list, and cost the equivalent of £20 in the UK.
We bought those children new bedding as well as pillows - all could be easily washed. We bought clothing from newborn to age 12 for boys and girls. Toothbrushes - bundles - and soap, fabric wet wipes, soaps and nappy rash cream. We also bought bundles of loo paper and sanitary pads - one of our group had made washable pads to gift so we added these to the 'collection'.
When we loaded up (wiyth help from the driver) the minibus, we asked for a shop that sold toys.
All of us were in tears on and off throughout the day, but I couldn't hold back when we went into the kids' room and gave them all something to play with.
My little lad gazed in wonder at a soft baby ball that had a mirror and coloured chunky beads on it.
The carers were over the moon, and using a permanent marker they wrote children's names visibly across everything we had purchased for them - they would not be valuable to anyone else now!!
When we left that hospital that day I vowed to continue with Operation Christmas Child all the years I had left on the earth. It's a tiny thing that makes someone know they are loved, that someone hasn't forgotten or abandoned them.
I have photographs of the trip - Gatwick airport, Timisoara and Arad; the last nearest to where we worked for that week - but I wouldn't take photographs of the children or the hospital. My hands and my heart were full and I will always remember how blessed I was to go and see things for myself.
Thank you for reading.