The power of a shoebox at Christmas

Ann-Marie now serves as a volunteer packing shoeboxes for children just like her younger self

Ann-Marie was 8-years-old when she received a Christmas shoebox in her native Zambia filled with gifts from a stranger.

The box of gifts was given to her as part of the annual campaign, Operation Christmas Child, which delivers Christmas gifts to children in poorer countries who might otherwise never receive any presents.

Now 28 and living in the UK, Ann-Marie has grown up to be a volunteer for Operation Christmas child, packing boxes to be sent abroad to children much like her younger self.

She writes here about the impact that shoebox had on her as a child and why it compels her to do the same for other children today.

I was born and raised in a quiet little copper mining town in Zambia. I have three siblings - two older brothers and a younger sister. My parents come from really big families and I have over 60 immediate cousins! As you can imagine, we always had some exciting family drama going on!

I was blessed to spend a lot of time with my aunties and uncles during school holidays which at a very young age, exposed me to a range of different conditions people lived in across the country. Some were completely homeless, others barely able to afford food, but many of us just getting by.

Church was a very big part of our family life, and I enjoyed the integration of culture and faith for us because worship felt very authentic and honest as we sang and prayed in many different languages.

Ann-Marie (far right) as a child with her siblings and cousins in Zambia.

When I was about 8 or so, one Sunday our Sunday school teachers invited us to come along to church the following Saturday (which I remember being a little bothered about because church activities in my mind were allocated only to Sundays – I was clearly still a part time Christian, you see).

What we now call 'the fear of missing out' settled into my little mind and I'd resolved to go with some of the kids from my neighbourhood. So we showed up bright and early on the day and it felt like Jesus was about to feed the 5,000 because there were so many children there!

Unlike the cold, frosty, wintry days we get later in the year in the UK, Christmas for us was bright, sunny and hot weather – and this day in particular was no exception. A very large lorry was parked up on the church courtyard and we knew that's probably were the presents were (it's a wonder a stampede didn't spark up).

But we were being very well behaved to make sure we didn't ruin our chances of going home with one of these gifts. I waited patiently for my turn and got a big box labelled with my gender and age range. Now I have to note here: I don't actually remember much of what was in my boxes because gifts have never been a dominant love language for me. But what I do remember is the joy and the excitement of all the children around me when we had our countdown to open our gifts.

And because quality time is a significant way I receive love, being able to share in the happiness and pure exhilaration with my friends - some of whom lived in much harder conditions that I did - was so encouraging. To know that regardless of the importance or significance of our families that we were part of a body of believers that would selflessly send symbols of love and attention and care to us all the way across the globe was so special to each of us.

And this is a significant reason why I pack shoeboxes now. Because I believe these boxes for many children are vessels of healing, speaking life into the spaces where they may have felt forgotten and neglected by earthly parents, or insignificant because of the lack of sentimental belongings in their life.

It's an opportunity for these children to see their local church leaders being agents of love and joy as they distribute the gifts. An opportunity to learn about selfless generosity. And most of all, I hope that these boxes will be a symbol of God's 'good measure, pressed down shaken together and running over' kind of love.