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Corbella: Salem's Dream puts thousands of gifts into the hands of needy children

Written by Licia Corbella

On Wednesday, Salem Keogh turns 13. Instead of thinking about what gifts she hopes to receive to mark the start of her life as a teenager, the Grade 8 Calgary student is preoccupied with assembling gifts for impoverished children around the world.

That’s what her family calls “Salem’s Dream,” which is also the name of her Facebook page.

Back in 2012, when she was six years old, Salem’s mom and dad, Michelle and Patrick, were assembling about 250 Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes every year and filling them with school supplies, hygiene items, toys and clothing as part of the charity’s Operation Christmas Child initiative.

The family was wondering how many more gift-filled boxes they should fill that year. “So I said, ‘Salem, what do you think? And that’s when she said, ‘100 times 100.’ And I said, ‘Do you even know what 100 times 100 is?’ And she said, ‘Yes, it’s 10,000.’

“I said, ‘Well, that’s impossible.’ And she said, ‘Nothing is impossible for God.’”

And thus began Salem’s Dream. Since that day the family has assembled 7,000 boxes — 1,500 this year alone.

To give an idea of just how many boxes that is, stacked on top of one another, 7,000 boxes would soar 800 metres and be just slightly taller than four Calgary Towers or just a few metres less than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 829.8 metres tall.

Much of the family home is taken over by the operation. The dining table and every other surface in that room are covered with bins, each filled with different items — toothbrushes, stuffies, washcloths, pencils, sharpeners, pens, erasers, pencil crayons, balls, dolls, toy trucks, shoes, T-shirts, socks, headbands, hairbrushes, solar-powered calculators and the list goes on and on.

Head down to the basement and pencil cases and scissors fill another bin, sewing kits in sparkly boxes fill another (for the older girls). Their cheerful house resembles a mix between Toys “R” Us, Staples and a drugstore.

While the goal of 10,000 boxes may be Salem’s Dream, it really is a family affair, that includes Sydney, 8; Samara, 5; and three-year-old Savannah, along with their rescue dog, Cash, an abused pit bull from Washington, who is learning how to trust humans.

In the basement, Sydney holds up a pair of glittery Skecher runners that light up when moved. “I have a pair of these,” she declares. “I love them so I know a little girl somewhere else is going to love hers.”

Michelle pipes in that the runners, normally $35, were on sale one day at Walmart for $11 so she bought them all. The family keeps their eyes peeled for excellent deals year-round. Patrick, a mechanical engineer who has only worked sporadically over the past two years, says they are now living on their retirement and savings.

Michelle, 42, first started putting together shoe boxes in 1994, when Samaritan’s Purse staff visited Springbank high school, where she attended while in foster care and told them how life-changing a simple box can be for the needy kids receiving them.

That year, using money she made at her two part-time jobs, Michelle put together 10 boxes and then increased the number of boxes she made every year.

By the time she met Patrick in 2001, Michelle was making 40 boxes a year, “and I remember him saying, ‘That’s so much. I’m sure no other single person does 30 to 40 boxes.’”

The family includes a short note and family photo with each box that includes their email address and they have heard back from the grateful parents or guardians of a few of the children who have received their love-filled gifts.

One mother in Nicaragua wrote in Spanish, saying that receiving the family’s gift would forever be remembered by her daughter and “had permanently stamped her heart with love.”

Sandra Hea, the ministry opportunity developer with Samaritan’s Purse, says she has fallen in love with the Keogh family and volunteers a few days every year to help put together some of the boxes.

This August, 1,200 boxes were assembled at the Samaritan’s Purse warehouse in Calgary’s northeast on rows upon rows of tables, after the family’s roof leaked and then the water line in their fridge leaked.

“They are such an amazing family — I just love spending time with them. The kids are so full of love and energy,” Hea said.

“I’m not sure most people can fathom just how much space 1,200 boxes takes up,” she laughs, adding that as a result of COVID-19, children around the world are in even more need of shoebox gifts.

Hea says the goal this year is for Canadians to pack 500,000 shoeboxes and while it may be tougher than usual to shop for the items because of the pandemic, it is possible to fill a shoebox online by going to

Fred Weiss, the executive director of Samaritan’s Purse Canada, says he has “been blessed to see how the Lord can use a simple shoebox gift to bring new hope to people.”

In one case, after distributing shoeboxes to children whose families lived on the edges of a smoky dump in Managua, Nicaragua, Weiss says he visited with a mother whose child had just received a shoebox.

“She shed tears of joy looking at the gifts her young son had received in his shoebox, particularly because of the school supplies it contained,” he said.

“She showed us her son’s old notebook, its pages were scratched and almost too rough to write on due to being written on and erased over and over. We learned she could not afford a new notebook and was concerned her child might not be able to continue in school. For this mother, these new notebooks meant her son could continue in school with the hope of a better future.”

With considerable pressure, Salem finally mentions what she would like for her birthday present. She wants to try indoor skydiving at iFLY Calgary.

She shrugs. “But mostly, more shoes and toys for the shoeboxes would be nice.”

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary.

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