SHERIDAN — Upon entering Cornerstone Church for the Sunday service last week, a familiar red and green shoebox sparked a familiarity in the mind of Sheridan resident Paul Pswarayi. He had seen similar boxes before, but in a much different circumstance.
Pswarayi grew up in Rusape, Zimbabwe, and lived in the United States for 10 years while he attended college. He returned to Zimbabwe with a feeling of obligation toward his home country. He wanted to use his education to help people who were rarely afforded the same opportunity given to him — to obtain both an associate and bachelor’s degree in America.
Pswarayi began working with a church ministry, Kabod Ministries, to give back to those less fortunate than him.
The pastor of the church put Pswarayi, an assistant associate pastor at the time, in charge of the Samaritan’s Purse gift box program, widely known as Operation Christmas Child.
Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. The organization’s mission is to provide local partners around the world with shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items and school supplies as a means of reaching out to children in their own communities. Samaritan’s Purse ships the gifts outside the United States to children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine and disease. Boxes are also delivered to children living on Native American reservations in the U.S.
Pswarayi, who had purchased a small truck upon returning to Zimbabwe, would drive early in the morning to the bustling distribution center along with other ministry leaders, teachers and community members. They had the job of picking up and delivering the much-anticipated red and green shoeboxes that had arrived from America. Pswarayi said women and men would carry large boxes on their heads or in wheelbarrows with unwavering smiles.
“I would get to feel so bad because here I am with this cushy truck and I’m complaining that they’re taking too long,” Pswarayi laughed. “I’m sure some of those people spent the night there, on the ground, waiting for these boxes to arrive.”
Distributing the boxes from Samaritan’s Purse in his local church became a family affair, as family members, children and others looked over the gifts sent to them. The joy of receiving the boxes spread from the children to parents, entire church congregations and even schoolteachers.
Pswarayi worked with a ministry called Hunger and Thirst through the local school system to help provide nutritional supplements for malnourished children. One day, a teacher from the school who was picking up boxes at the same time told him the boxes were the highlight of the students’ year as well as her own. The headmistress excitedly explained to Pswarayi her delight in watching children open boxes with pens, pencils, erasers and coloring books inside.
“I’m thinking, she’s not even the one who is getting the box, but she’s so excited,” Pswarayi said. “She got there on public transport and is probably going to carry those boxes, a very educated woman, is going to be walking with a box on her head.”
Hannah Sheely, who worked in the Denver processing center in 2009 and now coordinates Operation Christmas Child for Sheridan, recognizes and hears stories of how big an impact the box can have for the children.
“Story after story is told of children being able to attend school because they received pencils and a notebook; of young girls feeling valuable because someone across the world cared enough to send them a Teddy bear or a doll; of children’s prayers for specific items being answered when they opened their shoebox gift,” Sheely said.
Pswarayi recently completed his first full year back in the United States and in Wyoming, where he returned to live and work.
When he saw the familiar red and green shoebox at Cornerstone Church last week, he learned for the first time that instead of corporate workers or machines packing the boxes, families and communities in the U.S. had taken special care in packaging boxes for children they will never even meet.
“As I’ve worked with families and churches packing shoebox gifts, I’ve seen transformation right here in Sheridan, too,” Sheely said. “Moms tell me their children finally understand poverty and generosity and what it means to love others.”
Now having seen the entire process of Operation Christmas Child boxes from creation to distribution, Pswarayi recognizes the cultural boundaries that were broken down in order to bring joy to both sides of the program.
“Ubuntu in our language means ‘I am because we are,’” Pswarayi said, referring to a text sent from a friend back in Zimbabwe. “The truth of it is I am happy when those boxes arrive because you are, the people that pack them.”
Editor’s note: Hannah Sheely is also a journalist at The Sheridan Press.