Woodstock’s Lisa Given traveled to Rwanda with Operation Christmas Child

A life-changing trip to Central Africa for Lisa Given confirmed what she already knew — you can change a life with a simple gesture.

Operation Christmas Child sends gift-filled shoeboxes to children in need all over the world. The project is part of nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational evangelical Christian relief organization based in North Carolina.

Given, of Woodstock, has volunteered year-round with Samaritan’s Purse for five years and serves as the Operation Christmas Child area coordinator for McHenry and northern Kane counties. Given’s church, Woodstock’s First Presbyterian, has participated in the effort for 18 years, fundraising, accepting donations and providing a place to pack boxes.

When Given had the opportunity to visit Rwanda with other volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, she didn’t hesitate. In May 2017, after 30 hours of travel, the group spent about a week in Rwanda, where they were part of an outreach mission and had a chance to see their efforts firsthand.

“It was so eye-opening to see the joy,” she said.

Given explained many children in Rwanda are not accustomed to receiving gifts — for most she met, it was the first gift they had ever received. One of the things she learned while witnessing the gifting of the boxes was to take items out of their packaging. Since many children were not accustomed to receiving gifts, they didn’t understand to open the packaged items inside their shoeboxes.

“Some don’t even have the concept that they get to take it home,” she said.

The shoeboxes contain donated items including school supplies, clothing, toys and hygienic products such as soap. In Rwanda, the volunteers watched as the children excitedly opened their shoeboxes, each of which contained what volunteers call a “wow item,” which is different for every child. For some kids, it may be as simple as a shirt. Items that may seem simple or insignificant can have a great impact, Given said.

“Our kids here have toys, electronics. One little boy received a small memo notepad. He immediately opened it and started writing,” Given recalled.

Since there is no way to estimate when the gifts will arrive in the hands of the grateful children, the Operation Christmas Child effort is year-round, despite its name. The boxes may sit in a shipping port for months at a time, and the next part of their journey may be via camel through the desert.

Contributing to the Operation Christmas Child Mission comes in many forms. Volunteers can help pack boxes at the church and donors can drop off items or donate funds used for shipping the boxes.

First Presbyterian will host a packing party from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4. Last year, the church packed 2,645 shoeboxes, part of 11.5 million shoeboxes collected worldwide. Items such as school supplies, toys, dolls, soccer balls and hygiene items can be dropped off prior to the packing party at the church.

“It doesn’t take a lot to pack a shoebox. These children feel the love when they open that box,” Given said.

One boy opened his box to find a flashing bouncy ball. Given demonstrated how the ball flashed by tapping on it. She related the spark of excitement and surprise in the boy’s eyes to the group’s mission.

“This is a spark of love we are sharing around the world,” Given said.

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