operation christmas child in action: a full-circle moment in india.
“The wheel is come full circle.”
Adventures have a way of finding me when I least want them – for instance, after I’ve had about two hours of sleep.
I wake up Friday morning in Delhi, well before my alarm clock would normally sound, to accompany my colleagues at the Schumacher Centre on a project visit.
All I know is that we’re headed about fifty miles out of the city to rural Uttar Pradesh, and that the reason for our early departure is that we have work in a school – and thus need to arrive while the children are still there.
On the way, the NGO’s director, Giri, explains that we’re going to distribute small “packets” to each child. A friend of his was recently given 5,000 of these packets, asked Giri if he could use any, and Giri accepted 500 – fifty of which we’ll be transporting to Uttar Pradesh this morning.
As he talks, a brief thought runs through my mind – that sounds like Operation Christmas Child. But then I think, nah, it couldn’t be, and get back to mourning all the sleep I didn’t get.
* * *
Have you heard of Operation Christmas Child (OCC)?
It’s an annual project run by relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, in which children across the U.S. pack shoeboxes full of toys, school supplies, hygiene items, hard candy, and the like. OCC then distributes the boxes to children in need around the world.
Over the last twenty years, they’ve sent these stuffed-to-the-max shoeboxes to over 100 countries – and this year, they’re expecting to deliver their 100 millionth box. #Insanity
I grew up packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. It was something of a Christmas ritual in our house, just as much as decorating the tree and hanging our stockings with care were.
Nowadays, you can “follow your box,” i.e. make your donation online, be sent a label with a specific barcode on it, and receive an email telling you the destination of your box. At risk of sounding all “When I was your age,” you couldn’t do this when my siblings and I were younger.
All we could do was pack a box, with little idea of where it’d end up.
* * *
Before heading out to Uttar Pradesh, Giri, Susan – Schumacher’s deputy director – and I swing by where the packets themselves are being kept. In the back room of their guesthouse, cardboard boxes have been stacked along the wall.
But it isn’t until I see the logo printed on these boxes that I stop in my tracks and say:
No. flipping. way.
Because naturally, just as life would have it, it’s the logo for Operation Christmas Child.
These aren’t packets we’ll be handing out – they’re shoeboxes filled with Skittles and Sourpatch Kids, tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste and Crayola crayons, notebooks and washcloths. One even has a plastic blue curly straw in it.
And, also naturally, I freak out. Giri and Susan, neither of whom have heard of OCC, look at me curiously.
“I used to pack these boxes when I was a kid!” I exclaim. Forget running on the fumes of two hours’ sleep – the boxes have me buzzing.
They want to know why the boxes are all different sizes; I explain it’s up to the person packing it to choose what they fill. They want to know why some have less in them than others; again, I explain there’s no set rules or regulations for how much you give.
In a wonderful yet entirely unexpected collision of cultures, I find myself straddling the world I grew up in with the world I now live in.
“These kids will have never seen any of these things before,” Susan tells me. “They are very poor.” In fact, most will have never seen toothpaste, as they would normally just clean their teeth with a small twig from a Neem tree.
“All of this will be very new to them,” she says.
* * *
We spend an hour drinking chai and filling the trunk of Giri’s car with boxes before leaving. Highway 24 leads us out of Delhi into Uttar Pradesh, where we soon arrive at the village of Badnoli. Dusty roads are lined with handmade cow dung patties, laid out in neat rows to dry. Fields of yellow mustard flowers grow next to bright green stalks of sugarcane.
Finally, a sign points to J.P.S. Global Academy – and to 47 young students, dressed in their uniform best. I could continue to tell you about what happened next, but I think this is the sort of thing for which only pictures will do.
At the end of our visit, my mind still swimming with the smiles of Vijay and Amir, Manisha and Madhu, I am left in awe of this full-circle moment – helping deliver boxes I myself once packed. Giving to foreign aid – whether in the form of money or a goody-filled shoebox – is a tricky thing; we don’t often know where it’s going, where it ends up, who the final recipient will be.
To see these shoeboxes in the hands of 47 young Indian students left no doubt in my mind: aid helps.
I fall asleep on the way back to Delhi, surprising given I can’t normally sleep in cars. I guess sleep deprivation and full-circle moments will do that to you.
Seeing boxes labeled from Atlanta, Georgia, and Boone, North Carolina – both relatively close to my hometown in Virginia, given I’m currently in India – was surreal.
When we arrived, the kids were sitting – shoes off – in front of the school. “They took pains to be clean,” Susan said later. “Most of them do not normally wear their uniforms. They made an effort today.”
Gathered behind the children were their mothers and fathers, adorable baby siblings, even elderly villagers – anyone, it seemed, who wanted to know what was going on.
the big moment:
There was no mad rush to distribute the boxes. Students were called to the front one by one; they had to sign their name before being given their box. What moved me the most was the way each child would hold up their box, turn to the table of teachers and then to the crowd, and say Namaste – as a way of acknowledging the gift.