Rwanda man

People are asked to package school supplies, hygiene items and a “wow item.” (Samaritan’s Purse/Submitted)

Alex Nsengimana spent his early years growing up in Rwanda during the ’90s. 

Constantly on the move trying to escape genocide, Nsengimana lost many family members and ended up in an orphanage.

“My brother and I, we would run from place to place, from family to family,” said Nsengimana, who visited the Valley to speak about Samaritan’s Purse. “At the end of the genocide, after losing the people that really cared and who were taking care of us at that time, we were put in an orphanage by my aunt.”

Nsengimana lost faith that anyone would look out for him.

While he was at the orphanage, Samaritan’s Purse brought aid to those in need. When Samaritan’s Purse reached the orphanage, it had been supporting Rwanda for about a year and it was Christmastime.

“They brought Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts, which is the daughter organization of Samaritan’s Purse,” Nsengimana said. “They brought the shoebox gifts to the orphanage that I lived in, and it was such a special time for all of us 250 kids living there, and many of us had lost our loved ones and dealing with that trauma.

“We had lost so much in our lives that receiving that shoebox gift was a reminder to us of God’s love.”

Like Nsengimana experienced with his orphanage, Operation Christmas Child has been a light for countless children. The project began in 1993 to provide a Christmas celebration for children in Bosnia. 

During Operation Christmas Child’s National Collection Week, Nov. 14 to Nov. 21, residents can bring gift-filled shoeboxes to multiple drop-off locations across the region to be announced in late October.

Participants can donate $10 per shoebox gift online through “Follow Your Box” and receive a tracking label to discover its destination. Those who prefer online shopping can browse samaritanspurse.org/buildonline to select gifts matched to a child’s age and gender, then finish packing the virtual shoebox by adding a photo and personal note of encouragement. Boxes built online go to hard-to-reach countries.

According to the Samaritan’s Purse website, Operation Christmas Child started when the organization’s now-president, Franklin Graham, asked a friend, the late Pastor Ross Rhoads of Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to help him aid the less fortunate.

Within weeks, the church assembled 11,000 gift-filled shoeboxes. Combined with additional shoeboxes from Canada, Samaritan’s Purse sent 28,000 shoebox gifts for children in Bosnia that Christmas.

These shoebox gift packages are filled with hygiene products, school supplies, toys and what Nsengimana calls a “wow item.”

“We ask people to package school supplies, hygiene items, and then also think of a ‘wow item’ for when that child opens that shoebox gift, something that they’ll be so excited for and have a big smile on their face,” Nsengimana said.

He remembers his gift clearly.

“We were told to line up in the yard, and they said, ‘Today is the special day you’re going to get a gift.’ They handed us the gifts. They said not to open them until all of us had been handed one. 

“Some of us had to hold our presents for about 5 minutes, which is such a long time for a 7-year-old to hold a Christmas present. But we got to open the shoebox gifts and were so excited. I remember seeing all the school supplies, the hygiene items and then seeing a hair comb that I would keep for the next three years. That’s how important those items were.”

Since receiving this gift from Operation Christmas Child, Nsengimana was adopted by a family and moved to Minnesota in 2003. He later reconnected with Samaritan’s Purse in high school, this time as their spokesperson.

“It’s a huge privilege for me to be an ambassador. I’m an ambassador for other children who have yet to receive that shoebox gift, the gift I received when I was that 7-year-old living in an orphanage,” Nsengimana said. 

“When I’m out there, I’m speaking on behalf of this ministry representing Operation Christmas Child, and I can picture that little boy or girl who may be going through a lot of things that I went through as well. But when they hear about receiving that shoebox gift, they’re reminded they have that smile again; that’s what I think of every time.”

As the Christmas season is slowly approaching again, Operation Christmas Child is looking to top its record from last year. In 2021, they collected more than 10.5 million worldwide, 9.1 million of which came from the U.S. These shoebox gifts were collected in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Finland, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

This year, they are hoping to reach 11 million shoeboxes, with 9.4 million coming from the United States. 

Operation Christmas Child seeks volunteers to help package or donate items for the shoe boxes.

“The easiest way to get involved is to pack a shoebox gift. We have pre-printed shoeboxes that people can order online or any shoebox a volunteer already owns,” Nsengimana said.

“Another step anyone can take is going to a processing center where you can inspect the shoeboxes. We have eight processing centers around the country, and you can sign up on our website to volunteer.”

Operation Christmas Child invites others to serve as ambassadors for the ministry. 

For more information about how to get involved or donate to Operation Christmas Child and Samaritan’s Purse, call 303-745-9179 or visit samaritanspurse.org/occ.