Gift-filled shoeboxes bring the joy of Christmas to children in Senegal, Africa.
Written by Karen Stiller
Published by Faith Today on Friday, November 1, 2013
A young girl carefully reads out loud about loving others from The Greatest Journey discipleship workbook. This is a hot, muggy classroom in a crowded corner of Dakar, Senegal.
The children in this class sit four to a wooden bench. Their classroom window looks out over a busy, dusty street in a neighborhood that used to be better known for prostitution than proclamation.
But things here are changing for the better. And shoeboxes filled with toys, toothbrushes and treats are part of the change.
The children attending this discipleship program each received an Operation Christmas child (OCC) shoebox. Then they received an invitation by a local pastor to join this 12-week discipleship program-a unique invitation in this overwhelmingly Muslim West African nation.
Operation Christmas Child is run by Calgary’s Samaritan’s Purse, and embraced by Canadian Christians who love the idea of sending gifts directly to the eager and open arms of a child who lives in poverty. “You give us things we never got,” says Awa Niang, a 12-year-old shoebox recipient.
Last year alone Canadians packed 662,312 shoeboxes, with 134,000 reaching children in Senegal in 2013.
“It’s not just a feel-good project we do,” explains Rick Lamothe, OCC international regional director for West and Central Africa. Yo-yos, balloons, pencils and barrettes-or whatever the boxes contain-are discrete (and fun) ice breakers that indigenous churches use to build relationship with families in their communities. “In Africa, if you love the children, you love the parents,” explains Siri, a translator with the OCC Senegal team.
Relationships with local churches and learning about the shoebox-receiving communities also allows Samaritan’s Purse to connect with effective, already existing ministries with whom they can partner.
“Because we do the shoeboxes, we knew about the boy’s club,” explains Jeff Adams, director of communications and creative services for Samaritan’s Purse Canada. The Young Men and boys at Rick Project reaches out to boys who work and live on the streets, providing them with a safe place to hang out, shower, eat, do Bible study, play games, and have a reprieve from their life of begging on the streets.
The boys work their way through three levels of engagement, including vocational training that might mean working at a project-run Brazilian grill restaurant. Without this program, says one of the boys, “My life would be spoiled.”
A couple of hours and a muddy drive outside Dakar, Samaritan’s Purse partners with the Beer-Sheba project, an agro-forestry program that trains young Senegalese farmers in sustainable agriculture and Christian mentorship. “We are always on the lookout for projects that people have already started and are looking for support,” explains Adams. “It is the local Operation Christmas Child teams that help make those connections for us.”