100M shoebox gifts collected
by Sherrie Norris
The atmosphere was exhilarating as Franklin Graham, Samaritan’s Purse president and CEO, spoke of his passion for what has become known as the world’s largest Christmas project.
Graham shared a brief overview of how it all began: a call from a man in England asking him to help gather a few gift boxes for less-fortunate children.
Graham told his audience, composed of community members, staff members and volunteers, how the project rose from its humble beginnings with his wife, Jane, and a few other key people, including Ken Isaacs, Jim Harrelson and Randy Riddle, doing a stellar job in those first few years of preparing the boxes for shipment.
Acknowledging that there are a lot of other programs that help to meet the needs of children, Graham said what sets OCC apart is that “it’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He drew applause from his audience when he added, “I never back up from that message.”
Graham said his desire is that “every child out there will know about God loving them enough that he gave his only son to die for them,” and that the shoeboxes be used as an evangelism tool to help make that happen.
Graham spoke to those he sees regularly in Boone and many others, such as Ron and Marlene Horch from the state of Washington who said they have taken extended working vacations during the last five years to work at the Boone processing center each December.
Marlene Horch presented Jane Graham with a handmade kitchen scrubber in the OCC signature colors of red and green, indicating that each time it is used, a prayer must be said for the shoebox children.
Monday’s celebration included video-recorded and live testimonies from past shoebox recipients and music provided by the Tommy Coomes Band, regular performers at Graham’s worldwide crusades and other special events.
Serving as emcee for the event was 12-year-old Evilyn Pinnow from Fort Atkinson, Wis., who is traveling around the country as the 2012 OCC ambassador. She received her personally designed shoebox, representing the project’s “milestone gift.”
The box, wrapped simply in white paper, was stamped with red, blue, green and yellow handprints of her friends back home who are members of The Shoebox Club.
The box began its journey last week and has been hand-carried by Pinnow to OCC processing centers across the country before arriving in Boone.
Her final destination, after collecting gifts for the box at each stop, will be in the Dominican Republic, where she will deliver the box to its recipient later this week.
Pinnow founded The Shoebox Club about four years ago with 26 of her peers attending its first meeting. She said anywhere from 40 to 80 youths now attend the club’s monthly meetings, at which 40 to 50 boxes are packed each time.
Even before she heard of OCC, Pinnow said, she had been praying for a way to reach out to youngsters in need.
She said her desire to make a difference only intensified after receiving OCC promotional material in her Sunday school class. Pinnow’s friends and classmates joined her in forming The Shoebox Club, which has packed some 2,000 shoebox gifts since 2009.
After two years, Evilyn turned over the presidential position to another, with hopes of the club remaining intact as she grew older. Club membership ends after sixth grade.
Evilyn, now a seventh-grader who lives with her parents and brother, serves as an OCC community-relations volunteer, consulting with youngsters in other cities who want to start their own shoebox club.
“When I heard that OCC expected to collect the 100 millionth shoebox this year, I thought it would be cool to help encourage people to meet this milestone,” she said.
Life for Elena Hagemeier has come full circle.
The 21-year-old former Russian orphan, once in awe of receiving a gift-filled shoebox wrapped in colorful paper, now packs shoeboxes for less-fortunate children around the world.
She is also serving as an OCC spokeswoman, helping to spread the story of love and hope that came to her as a lonely child.
Hagemeier and her sister, Yulio, were in their second Russian orphanage — placed there after their unemployed parents had been jailed for stealing — when they received their shoeboxes.
Before the celebration at Samaritan’s Purse, Hagemeier shared with theWatauga Democrat how a simple gesture made a lasting impression upon her life.
She said she will never forget the toothbrush and the tricolored toothpaste, a stuffed teddy bear and a few hairclips that brought light to her bleak world.
“The best thing,” she said, “was a little book called ‘The Greatest Gift of All,’ written in my native language, that told the story of Jesus’ love for me. I had never heard about that kind of love before.”
“I thought it was a fairy tale, at first,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that the creator — of everything — loved me enough to die for me, but I hoped it was true.”
After reading the booklet, she said, she soon found hope.
“I started praying to this God I did not know,” she said. “I felt there was nowhere else to turn.”
Before going to the orphanage, Hagemeier and her sister lived in a cold and dirty house with alcoholic parents.
“When my father got drunk, he was very abusive to my mother,” she said. “Yulio and I often ran away to hide, afraid that we would be his next victims.”
The girls rarely had food, their beds were bare of linens and they never attended school until entering the orphanage, when Elena was 8 years old.
The shoebox distribution at the orphanage resulted in the Hagemeier girls receiving their first wrapped gift.
“I didn’t want to rip it,” Elena said. “I was afraid that nothing inside could be as pretty as it was on the outside.”
For the first time in her life, she said, she felt loved and had hope.
“I couldn’t believe that someone cared enough to do that,” she said.
In 2004, the sisters were adopted, moved to the United States and have since lived with their new family in Missouri.
The family began packing shoeboxes together and have continued to do so every year since, she said.
Last year, she was able to go to Uganda with Samaritan’s Purse to help deliver the shoeboxes — in schools, churches and orphanages, the latter of which was not easy.
“I knew I would cry,” she said. “I tried to keep busy, so I could keep my mind occupied.”
Seeing a little boy in the arms of a team member, clutching his unopened shoebox, brought her memories back.
“When I saw that, I said, ‘Wow,’ that was me when I was a kid,” Hagemeier said. “All I wanted was love and that’s what the shoebox showed me.”