How Operation Christmas Child changed my life (in Romania)

‘Tis the season when most of us with children begin to steel ourselves for the onslaught of not-so-subtle hints from our kids about what they hope to find beneath the Christmas tree this year. And while most of us are happy to see the excited looks on our children’s faces on Christmas morning as they tear open gifts, we are often left wondering whether our little ones are truly thankful for that new toy or nifty gizmo.

Of course, it’s fun to give our children good things, and it’s one way we communicate our love for them. But what if we could give them a gift that would last much longer – say, a lifetime?

There is a priceless gift we can offer our children this year and every year: the spirit of generosity.

As a child living in communist Romania in the midst of food shortages, persecution and upheaval, I had a hard time being thankful.

The shoebox gift changed my life. It gave me hope. It made me thankful for the God who inspired it. It taught me something very important: generosity, in the most unexpected ways and places, can change a child’s outlook forever.

When my family was forced to conceal our faith by attending a secret church or hiding a Bible under the floor of our home, how were we to remain thankful?

When our ration of food for the month for a family of four was a dozen eggs or a pound of sugar, what reason was there to give thanks?

When gunshots rang out nearby, how – as a young child – was I supposed to know to be thankful for the freeing revolution those shots heralded?

In the midst of such difficult circumstances, my 13-year-old mind searched for hope. But little did I expect during that cold winter in Romania that hope would come to me in a colorfully wrapped shoebox.

One morning, I saw people running down the street. During that time in Romania, every time we saw people running down the street, we knew it was either really good, or really bad – and either way, you had better keep up. As we passed by the grocery store, I realized it must not be a rush for scarce food.

And as we neared the center of town, word began to filter through the crowd that trucks were en route. Large trucks.

Within moments, as the trucks rolled up and opened their doors, we were greeted not by the lingering vestiges of revolution, but by evidence of freedom: volunteers bearing hundreds of beautifully wrapped, colorful packages.

Child after child was handed a shoebox, and child after child opened the box to find wonderful toys, school supplies and hygiene items inside. I saw a generous spirit warm the hearts of hundreds of children, including my own heart, because of some simple, gift-filled shoeboxes.

As a cheerful lady handed me a shoebox gift, she gave me a big hug, and handed another to the next kid. In that moment, I thought: “I am receiving a gift, and I haven’t done anything for it. How can this be?”

The shoebox gift changed my life. It gave me hope. And it made me thankful for the God who inspired it. It taught me something very important: generosity, in the most unexpected ways and places, can change a child’s outlook forever.

The volunteers that day, like the thousands of Operation Christmas Child volunteers who have followed in their footsteps, gave a gift to a group of kids that was so much bigger than shoebox– the gift of hope and a spirit of generosity.

My thankfulness for that shoebox caused me to want to live generously.

After the fall of communism in Romania, I resettled in the United States and became a grade school teacher. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I learned the school where I was teaching was participating in a shoebox gift-giving program that sounded strangely familiar. It was my chance to give back, and to share my thankful spirit with the children in my care. We packed thousands of shoeboxes together over the next several years!

Today, as a mother, I have been so encouraged to see my own children learning that it is better to give than to receive, as we prepare shoeboxes in our own home every year.

In 2010, I returned to my home country to deliver shoebox gifts to Romanian girls and boys just like me. As I handed out colorful shoebox gifts, I saw on the faces of the children who received them the same gratitude I felt when accepting my own unexpected gift so many years ago.

Today, I have the privilege to work full time for Operation Christmas Child. I am excited to be a small part of an effort that has touched the lives of millions of children.

The giving has come full circle. The gift that warmed a little girl’s heart in the middle of a cold Romanian winter keeps on giving.

As Christmas approaches, it is a good time to consider how you will pass along your thankful spirit and foster a culture of generosity in the next generation.

Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or teacher, I encourage you to look for ways to create that first little spark of thankfulness in the heart of a child in your life.

After all, a spark of generosity can warm the hearts of millions.

Written by Izabella McMillon

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