December 10, 2012
A young girl abandoned as a baby is the recipient of the symbolic 100 millionth shoe box gift from Operation Christmas ChildFive years ago, a mother decided she no longer wanted her child. A desperate father packed a small, four-pound baby girl into a box, strapped the box on the back of a motorcycle, and drove 15 miles to his aunt's home in a small village outside Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Five years ago, a willing woman laid eyes on the tiny 5-month-old baby girl nestled in a box, and decided that the child was her newest daughter.
And five years ago, God began working an amazing plan for that little girl's future.
Brenda Valdez, now a healthy and vibrant 5-year-old with an “all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” smile, is the girl who was delivered in a box five years ago to Christiana Guzman.
"I decided from the bottom of my heart, with great love, to take her in," said Christiana, who cried at her first sight of the tiny, malnourished girl. "When she arrived, tears ran down my face. I said, 'If there's a God in heaven, I'm going to help this child.'"
Christiana slowly nursed Brenda back to heath, feeding her soup during the day. Her daughter, Maria "Chela" Altagracia, was about to give birth to her own baby when Brenda arrived, and was soon able to give the baby the milk she needed. Three months later, the once sickly and abandoned infant was healthy and thriving, with a family who adored her.
"I believe that had I not taken her in, she would have died," Christiana said. "I cannot be far from her; I love her as my own."
Brenda is now full of life, quick to flash her toothy smile and sing for any audience. She attends school, and seems eager to learn. And last week, she learned that she has a new friend.
After a month of traveling around the United States to pack Operation Christmas Child's symbolic 100 millionth shoe box gift with small toys, hygiene items, school supplies and candy, 12-year-old Evilyn Pinnow finally placed the colorfully hand-printed box into Brenda's tiny arms.
"All of the items were added by so many different people; she's going to be a really lucky girl," Evilyn said.
After a puppet show that presented the Gospel, Evilyn and Brenda sat side-by-side in the midst of about 250 other children as they opened their gifts. Excited cries erupted throughout the courtyard, swirling around the small yellow concrete school building as children discovered the new treasures in their boxes.
Brenda just grinned as she slowly unpacked her box, carefully inspecting each item as Evilyn explained them with the help of a translator.
There were candy canes from Alex Nsengimana, who received a shoe box after surviving genocide in Rwanda. A small musical stuffed lamb was added by Oksana Nelson, who got her shoe box at an orphanage in Russia before being adopted by a family in the U.S. Brenda smiled and listened intently as the lamb played "Jesus Loves Me," before she dug into a purple pouch containing soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other hygiene items.
"These are my friends," said Evilyn as she flipped through a photo album showcasing snapshots of the journey of Brenda's gift. Each new page held a photo of the group or individual who added items to the box.
As the event ended and children started to drift home with their shoe box gifts, Evilyn and Brenda slowly strolled down the dirt road to Brenda's cramped concrete house in the community of Sabana Larga de Gonzola. Christiana graciously invited her guests into the front room, which was nearly filled edge-to-edge by a dining table and chairs.
Residents of Sabana Larga are largely of Haitian descent, and many of the families are headed by single mothers. Because the community isn’t officially recognized, the residents are left without any government services, and lack clean drinking water and other basic necessities.
No government recognition means the residents are considered squatters, and are therefore not allowed to plant and harvest any food on the land. The men that do remain with their families make livings as day laborers, but the community has been ravaged by unemployment, a lack of food, HIV, and cancer.
Still, the people are resilient and remain positive—fitting for what Operation Christmas Child national coordinator Fidel Lorenzo calls "the happiest country on earth."
"We're surviving, God takes care of us," said Christiana, who looked on as Brenda sat and smiled shyly as Evilyn began to read her a letter.
A grin crept up at the corners of Brenda's mouth as Evilyn read: "I know we live far apart, but will you be my friend?"
The pair continued to investigate the box's contents, and Brenda pulled two silver chains out of the jumble of toys. Two brightly colored heart halves dangled from the end of each necklace, one bright pink and the other bright purple. Two words were inscribed, "best" on one heart and "friends" on its match.
Evilyn explained that a woman named Livia Satterfield added the necklace, which matched one she received in a shoe box gift years ago as an orphan in Romania. Like Livia, tiny little Brenda thought it appropriate to offer one half of the necklace to the person who handed her one of the first gifts she'd ever received.
"I enjoyed meeting Evilyn," Brenda said. "I have another friend now."
Evilyn agreed, playing with her purple heart and chiming in: "She said she'll always wear it. So will I."
It didn't take long for neighborhood children to join in playing with the two girls. A package of four jump ropes, added by the hosts of a Milwaukee morning show, was a big hit. Three of the ropes were quickly tied together and a game began to see how many could jump at once.
Any language barriers were quickly torn down as Evilyn joined in, jumping with Brenda's young aunts and friends.
"I was nervous at first, but once I got there and was holding hands with some of the kids it was all right," said Evilyn, who was relieved to finally deliver the box she had been bearing.
"It just kept getting heavier and heavier!" she exclaimed.
Each of the items adding to the special box's weight was obviously treasured by Brenda, including a brand new pink leather Bible.
"We read a verse together, and I learned that God loves me," Brenda said. "I never dreamed of a gift like this."
Five years after Brenda was delivered to her family in a small box, God planned a box full of special gifts to bless the little girl.
"Without a doubt I've seen God, and God is with us," Christiana said. "He has shown His love to us today."
Five years later, Brenda is a thriving and healthy little girl. Like so many children who receive shoe box gifts, she has a tangible representation of God's love and gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
"I definitely want to pray that everything goes well for her," Evilyn said. "Maybe we'll meet each other again."