God’s love for Bosnia in a Norfolk shoebox
Just before Christmas, 5,500 shoeboxes packed with toys, stationery, winter woolies and toiletries were donated by people across Norfolk to children living in poverty overseas, a charity effort co-ordinated by Trish Ellse from Wymondham. Jenny Seal reports.
In January, Trish visited Bosnia, one of the countries receiving Norfolk’s shoeboxes, to see the impact.
Every year, the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse mobilises churches, schools and community groups across a number of Western countries to pack shoeboxes as Christmas presents for children living in Sub Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In 2018, an amazing 10.6m shoeboxes were donated globally, through the charity’s Operation Christmas Child, including over half a million from the UK.
In June last year, Trish took on her dream job managing Operation Christmas Child in the East of England. Trish, who is originally from South Africa, moved to Wymondham in 2013. She was introduced to Operation Christmas Child through Wymondham’s Alive Church and soon became passionate about the cause. Before working full-time for the charity, she was a key volunteer co-ordinating the collection and processing of shoeboxes across Norfolk.
In the run up to Christmas 2018, around 20,000 shoeboxes were transported from the UK to Bosnia and Herzegovina, some originating in Norfolk.
In January, Trish visited the country with a team of seven UK volunteers, to see shoeboxes being distributed and to meet the local people who make it work.
Trained volunteers, from Bosnia’s small number of evangelical churches, distribute the shoeboxes. Visiting schools, homes, hospitals and local communities, they take shoeboxes to children who may never have received a Christmas present before. When appropriate they also share a Gospel message. It is a way for the local church to open doors, build relationships within their communities and tell people about the love of God.
Trish talks about these volunteers with awe. She tells of Tomislav Dobutovic, Pastor of the Baptist Church in Sarajevo, who travelled to a mountainous community to give out shoeboxes at a tiny school for seven children.
“I’m always blown away by what people do here in the UK for shoeboxes and the giving that’s involved,” she said. “But the part that our local church partners and volunteers abroad have is inspiring.”
Trish and her group were able to accompany local volunteers to a shoebox distribution in a Roma community in the industrial town of Zenica. Unfortunately, the temperature was -6°C so the children vanished indoors to open their prized possessions.
It was on visits to people’s homes that the team got to see the joy of children opening their shoebox. Trish said: “One little girl, who was about two, got her shoebox and there was a Peppa Pig in her box and that was the first thing she saw. She grabbed that and hugged it. Each one of the children would take things out one at a time and look at them, not like our kids who might empty out the box!”
The team visited the home of a single mum to give a shoebox to her son who has cerebral palsy. Incredibly Anne, one of the UK volunteers, is married to a man with cerebral palsy.
Trish said: “It was such an encouragement and blessing for this mum. She kept saying to Anne, ‘you married him? And he’s okay? He has a wife?’ and that was just such an encouragement for her. Only God knew that Anne was going to visit this woman. It wasn’t planned. None of us at the time knew that Anne’s husband had cerebral palsy. It was just an incredible God moment.”
Trish said: “The boy’s favourite item was a toothbrush because he’d just had a visit from the dentist that morning. So, his whole face lit up when he saw the toothbrush.”
“Sometimes people may worry about what they pack in a box,” Trish said, “but God knows what’s going in that box, and God knows every child that that box is going to go to.”
After receiving a shoebox, each child is invited, with their parent’s permission, to attend The Greatest Journey, a fun 12-part introduction to the Gospel. In Bosnia, a few hundred children have enrolled on the programme.
The team saw one of these sessions at Zenica’s Word of Life Church with a class of eight children, who had received their shoeboxes a few weeks before. One young boy called Demir walked 5km each way, in the snow, to attend.
“That was my highlight,” said Trish. “Seeing the passion that their teacher, Azmina, has to teach those children, because she loves God so much. They play games, they sing songs and the children are so engaged. They are just so thankful.”
Azmina had received a shoebox when she was a child. A few weeks after returning to the UK, Trish received an email from Azmina to tell her that seven of the eight children had given their lives to Christ. “Which is just so exciting,” Trish said.
“You don’t know the difference that a shoebox is making in a child’s life,” said Trish. “They get to hear the Word of God, and they get to experience God’s love through a shoebox.”
If you would like to encourage your church, school, work place or community group to pack shoeboxes, or if you would like to volunteer with Operation Christmas Child in another capacity, please contact Trish at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictured above, Trish Ellse from Wymondham (centre) out in Bosnia helping to deliver the Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes to children.