Brenda was a 4-pound infant when her father packed her in a box and drove her on his motorcycle to his aunt's house in the Dominican Republic because he and the baby's mother did not want her.
Five years later, having been adopted by that great-aunt, the girl who was abandoned in a box is the recipient of another box: the 100-millionth shoe box of gifts provided by Americans through Operation Christmas Child.
The kindergartner, in pigtails and with a gap-toothed grin, accepted the box from 12-year-old Wisconsin resident Evilyn Pinnow in early December amid much fanfare provided by Operation Christmas Child, a project that collects and distributes shoe boxes full of toys, candy and necessities packed by U.S. residents in every state to poor children in countries across the globe. Operation Christmas Child is a program of the nonprofit Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
Photo by Betsy Bethel Yuliya Anderson of Wheeling still has the Strawberry Shortcake blanket she received as a youngster in Russia in an Operation Christmas Child shoe box.
At left, in this photo courtesy of Operation Christmas Child, Brenda Valdez, 5, of the Dominican Republic, opens items in the shoe box she received in early December. It was the 100-millionth shoe box delivered since 1993.
Pinnow had traveled the U.S. for a month, stopping in cities to allow certain individuals to add items to the box. She then delivered it and other boxes to about 250 children in the small village of Sabana Larga, a community that lacks clean drinking water and where unemployment and HIV are rampant.
In Brenda's box were, among other items, candy canes from a boy in the U.S. who survived the Rwandan genocide and a musical lamb that plays "Jesus Loves Me," put in by a Russian orphan who had received a box in her home country before being adopted by a U.S. couple.
Operation Christmas Child began 19 years ago when originator Dave Cooke called Samaritan's Purse President Franklin Graham for support. He was hoping to fill 1,000 shoe boxes. Today, shoe boxes have been filled by churches, youth groups, organizations and individuals and delivered to needy children in more than 130 countries.
Yuliya Anderson of Wheeling knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of a shoe box. As an adolescent in her hometown of Bryansk, Russia, she was given a few boxes over the years because her mother was involved in helping distribute boxes through the local church. Sometimes, after visiting orphanages, rehabilitation centers and poor villages to distribute boxes, there would be some extras.
"The whole family would be there on the big bed and we would sit around and open them together. It was neat," said the 24-year-old who met her husband, Tom, when he was on a missions trip in Russia as a teenager. She was the group's interpreter.
One year when she was about 12 or 13, she was surprised to receive just one item in her box, a tightly rolled pink Strawberry Shortcake fleece blanket. On shoe box collection Sunday, Nov. 18, she shared with the congregation of Covenant Community Church in Wheeling, where she and Tom attend, that even though she didn't know who the iconic character was, she loved the blanket and has taken it everywhere with her - to college in Russia, to Alaska when she moved to the U.S. and now to Wheeling.
"It was exciting to open the box, First of all, it's a present and, you know, it's from America. It made me really happy." Although her family wasn't destitute, they did not have the kinds of items found in the boxes. Also, Anderson said, it wasn't uncommon for her to receive only one present for both her birthday, which is Dec. 30, and the New Year holiday, which is a bigger celebration than Christmas in Russia.
She said when she helped the church deliver boxes in Russia at a rehabilitation center for children with physical and mental disabilities, "the kids were really happy because they hardly have anything."
She wants people to know "it actually is working and it's needed and it's really appreciated."
For the first time, she had the opportunity this year to fill a box herself. She filled one for a girl, and her husband filled one for a boy.
"I found these really cool socks to put in. And we put it toys and school supplies, like crayons. We don't have crayons in Russia still; I don't know why. And toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps and hard candy."
Local families who fill shoe boxes say the experience gives their children a chance to give rather than only receive at Christmastime.
"We do Operation Christmas Child because it gives us a chance to teach our children what Christmas is all about," said Trish Morgan of St. Clairsville, children's ministry coordinator at C3 and mother of three girls ages 4 and under. "This year was quite challenging as my 3- and 4-year-old kept trying to get toys for themselves, so we had to remind them that we are shopping for kids who don't have toys. ... My husband says it's his favorite holiday tradition."
"(My children) get to understand that we share out of our abundance with someone who has less. I am hoping this carries over to everyday life here, too," said Michelle Titus-Glover of Wheeling, a mother of three. Her family participated in Operation Christmas Child through the Vineyard Church in Wheeling.
"Having lived in West Africa," Titus-Glover continued, "I have seen firsthand kids who have almost nothing and are so excited if you give them something as small as a sucker. A whole box of gifts like this would be SO exciting for them!"
"We watch the videos showing the children when they receive their boxes," said Missy Ashmore of Wheeling, also from the Vineyard, and the mother of two elementary-age children. The videos are posted on the Operation Christmas Child website at www.samaritanspurse.org/OCC. "It gives us a chance to talk about how other people live and what their lives are like. We want our kids to know that not everyone has a house or food or gets to go to school."
"I love that my kids start to understand how other cultures live and also understand how similar we all are," said Stacey Sacco of Martins Ferry. "(Six-year-old) Matthias is always so proud to drop off the box knowing that he chose all the gifts in it and it will be sent directly to another boy who needs it. Giving the gift of generosity and compassion to my kids is the best Christmas gift I can give them, so we will continue to make this a Christmas tradition." The Saccos deliver their boxes to Warwood Christian Church, where her parents attend.
In addition to getting the boxes, the children are told about Jesus Christ through age-appropriate methodss such as puppet shows. Brenda in the Dominican Republic also received a small pink Bible in her box.
"We read a verse together, and I learned that God loves me," Brenda said through an interpreter in an article on the OCC website. "I never dreamed of a gift like this."