When Olesea Ialanji received a shoebox filled with toys as a 5-year-old living in Moldova, she didn’t know the impact it would have on her 20 years later.
The box came from Operation Christmas Child, a project of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, that has provided shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items and school supplies to more than 146 million children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine and disease since the ministry started in 1993.
Ialanji, a 2010 Federal Way High School graduate, now volunteers for Operation Christmas Child and shares her story with groups and churches throughout the country.
One of seven children, Ialanji grew up in a small village in the Eastern European country of Moldova, where many of the families, including hers, grew their own food and raised livestock to survive.
“My parents had to work really hard to make ends meet and to make sure we had food on the table,” she said. “We never were hungry because they worked so hard, but we never had little toys or just fun items little kids would want.”
Although she didn’t have much, Ialanji has good memories from her childhood.
“We spent lots of time outside playing, making up our own games, making our own toys, just climbing trees, running around with other big families in the village,” she said. “It was just great. What we had, we treated it as a blessing because we didn’t know of anything else that was out there.”
In 1997, Ialanji’s church distributed Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes to children in the village.
“We were told by our Sunday school teachers that we were going to get a gift from another boy or girl just like us from far, far away…” Ialanji said. “The Saturday night before that, I couldn’t wait for the time to come faster. I just went to bed early thinking if I sleep, the time was going to go by fast, but I kept tossing and turning in bed. I couldn’t fall asleep for the longest time.”
After she and her siblings received their boxes the next day, Ialanji remembers they carried them home to be opened as a family.
“My family being so family oriented, they wanted to do everything as a family,” she said. “They told us don’t open your gifts until we get home, so we had to walk across the whole village holding our shoeboxes. I clung to my shoebox so hard. I didn’t trust my parents holding it because what if they are going to forget it somewhere?
“We finally get home. We take turns opening our shoeboxes. I was the fifth one in line to open our shoeboxes. By the time my turn came I couldn’t just slowly open it. I just opened the shoebox and dumped everything on the floor, and so many things fell out. I had so many items, like coloring books, coloring paper and scissors.”
On particular gift stuck out to Ialanji: a package of markers.
“The markers we did have for all seven children, we only had a few colors, and they were super dry,” she said. “To write one more letter, we had to dip (the marker) in water and color a little bit and dip it again because when it gets wet it gets a little more color. I never asked for markers because I knew my parents couldn’t afford anything, couldn’t buy anything.
“When I saw the markers – it was a big pack of so many different colors. It was a few shades of red, a few shades of orange, of yellow. I didn’t know so many colors existed. I thought there was only red, one orange. I just hugged the markers and started jumping around the room and yelling and just being excited.”
Ialanji’s family was grateful for the gifts.
“Our dad wanted us to kneel on the floor and thank God for providing all that to us because (Ialanji’s parents) couldn’t provide all that to us,” she said. “It wasn’t them. It was only God taking care of his people and blessing us with something we wanted, but we were never able to get. It is a living testimony to me.”
In 2003, when Ialanji was 11, her parents moved their family to Federal Way as refugees to seek better educational opportunities and religious freedom.
Several years ago, while in a Christian store, Ialanji was offered an empty Operation Christmas Child shoebox to pack. After doing some research, she realized it was through the same organization that had blessed her years ago.
“I thought, ‘didn’t we get something like that?’ ” she said. “I remembered we had pictures with the shoeboxes, and I quickly grabbed the box and quickly ran to the room and pulled up the pictures. I compared the shoebox in my hand and the shoebox in the picture, and it just all fell together.
“I realized if I didn’t get the shoebox that I did, I would never be able to recognize the organization. I would never be able to bless other children in return like I was blessed. It was just another God moment.”
Each year since, Ialanji packs shoeboxes to be sent to children like her.
This year, her colleagues at St. Francis Hospital, where she works as a nurse, helped with the effort.
She always includes markers in the boxes she packs, as well as a note to the recipient.
“So many children don’t know there is somebody out there who loves them,” she said. “A lot of children in orphanages get shoeboxes. They don’t know about love. They never had their loving family.”
Two years ago, while dropping off the packed shoeboxes, a volunteer asked how Ialanji knew about Operation Christmas Child.
After telling her story, the volunteer connected Ialanji with the organization.
There are about 40 full-circle speakers in the United States, including Ialanji, who were Operation Christmas Child recipients who now share their experiences to encourage others to pack shoeboxes.
In the past two years, Ialanji has traveled to Montana twice and once to Minnesota to speak on behalf of the organization.
“People are just excited to hear a shoebox recipient’s story because they have been packing (shoeboxes) for years,” she said. “I have met people who have been packing since 1993, since it started. They pack shoeboxes, and they don’t know it does make any difference or what happens on the other side. Just hearing their shoeboxes go to a child and that those shoeboxes make a difference, it is just so eye opening for them and so encouraging.”
National collection week for the shoeboxes is the third week of November each year, but Ialanji said it’s never too early to start shopping for next year.
For more information about Operation Christmas Child, visit samaritanspurse.org/operation-christmas-child.