The life-changing gift of a shoebox

When Evangeline Franzon was 13 years old, she was living next to a giant trash heap on a small island in the Philippines. But when she was handed a colorful shoebox with a glittery notebook inside, the course of her life changed. 

"Who would have thought that a girl who grew up in a dump site would be standing right here in front of you right now, in Green River, Wyoming," Evangeline told a small crowd gathered in the Green River Assembly of God Church last Thursday. 

Holding a colorful shoebox from Operation Christmas Child in her hands, she shared her story. 

Life at a dump site

Evangeline grew up on the island of Mactan in the Philippines. Her parents were only teenagers when they got married, and they had to find work on the nearby island of Cebu to support their small family. Evangeline and her older brother were raised by her grandparents, until her grandmother passed away when she was six years old. After taking Evangeline and her brother back, their parents had two more children.

When Evangeline was in third grade, her father lost his job, became an alcoholic and drug addict, and was often away from home. Her mother struggled to raise and provide for all four children. Around the same time, the Filipino government decided to turn a huge, empty lot near the family's home into a dump site. It became the dumping ground for waste materials from their island, neighboring islands and resorts, and other groups who brought their waste there and let it pile up. Living next to a mountain of trash provided Evangeline's family with new opportunities.

"The dumpsite became the source of income for my family at that time," she explained. 

Her mother and older brother would go into the dump site to search for items that could be sold in order to provide money for food, or items that could be repurposed for the family. 

"I remember sometimes my mom would come home with clothes, so we would wash them and we would wear them," Evangeline said. "A few times Mom brought books because I loved reading." 

While the clothes and books often weren't in good shape, the family made due with what they could get. They also worked other odd jobs, from doing other people's laundry to helping sell fish in the fish market to cooking and selling various foods. Still, the family struggled to get by.

"There were so many times when we did not have food at the dinner table. Most nights. Mom would just ask us four children to go to sleep, hoping that our hungry stomachs would stop asking for food," Evangeline recalled. 

A small, suspicious church

On Saturdays when her mother and older brother went to the dump site, Evangeline was responsible for caring for her two younger siblings. Although their house was small, her little sister kept disappearing. Evangeline would go out to look for her, and she started to notice a pattern. She kept finding her sister in a small church that had started up next to the dump site. On Saturdays, the church offered free food for children. 

Evangeline kept returning to the church to retrieve her sister, but she was suspicious. 

"At first I was really hesitant with these people in this church," she said. "Who would want to go to the dump site? It's filthy, icky, yucky, smelly, smoke coming up from it every single minute of the day. You don't want to be here. So I questioned their intention at the time."

Still, her sister kept going to the church on Saturdays. Eventually, the pastor asked Evangeline if she would help chop vegetables and prepare meals for the kids. While she was still hesitant, the pastor was persistent. Evangeline also noticed an opportunity. 

"I thought, if I help, I get to eat," she explained. 

Still, Evangeline told herself she would only help out one time. 

"And that one time turned into so many times," she said. "I just kept going back."

After she'd been helping at the church for a while, Evangeline was invited by the pastor to attend a youth camp on a neighboring island. There, she became a Christian. 

Evangeline shared this photograph of a group of children at her church in the Philippines from when she was a teenager. She can be seen at the far left of the back row.

A few months later, another new opportunity presented itself. 

"December came, and Operation Christmas Child came to my neighborhood," Evangeline explained.  

A simple shoebox

Hundreds of children from the community were invited to the small church to receive colorful shoeboxes filled with a wide variety of gifts. Evangeline took her younger brother and sister, but as a tall 13-year-old who looked older than her age, she was told she wouldn't be able to receive a shoebox. She was about to leave, but was asked to help with the distribution. 

As she passed out shoeboxes to kids, shaking and smelling and treasuring each one before giving it away, Evangeline watched the pile of boxes behind her dwindle. Having never received a gift in her life, she prayed that there would be just one left over for her. 

After handing out the last box, Evangeline felt a tap on her shoulder from one of the ladies helping with the distribution. 

"She handed me my very own shoebox," Evangeline said, remembering that she was so excited she forgot to say thank you. "When I opened my shoebox, it was packed with school supplies that I got to use the following school year. Had I not received that shoebox, I probably would not have been able to go to school."

A big, glittery notebook stood out to Evangeline as her favorite item, and she took it as a sign that God wanted her to be an author. Even though that dream hasn't been fulfilled yet, the shoebox was the first step in many changes that came to Evageline's life. 

"When I received my shoebox it really solidified my relationship with my Heavenly Father, a father that would never leave me nor forsake me like my earthly father," she said. 

Overall, having a gift to treasure helped Evangeline and her siblings feel loved and cared for, and it helped give them hope. Although her circumstances didn't change right away, and life continued to be difficult, Evangeline found strength in her faith, and she found motivation to continue and pursue her dreams. 

A story to share

Eventually, Evangeline moved to the United States and started a family. She also helped provide for her family back home, and was able to bring many of them to America with her. The girl that almost couldn't go to school is now pursuing her Master's degree in counseling. 

Evangeline also got involved with her family in their local church in Kansas. One year, her church started handing out colorful shoeboxes as part of a program called Operation Christmas Child. Although she wasn't familiar with the program or the organization that runs it, Samaritan's Purse, Evangeline noticed the logo of a shoebox with wings, and wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then she saw a Facebook post from her pastor in the Philippines with a picture of a young boy holding up a shoebox, and the pieces fell into place. She remembered the shoebox she received as a teenager, and realized her church was supporting the same organization that gave her that gift. 

After sharing this connection with her pastor and being encouraged to share it with her church, Evangeline was eventually contacted by a representative with Operation Christmas Child. The organization has speakers who were once shoebox recipients share their stories around the country. Evangeline joined the group and started sharing her experiences. 

This year, Operation Christmas Child's Southwest Regional Area Coordinator Alison Long organized for Evangeline to come and share her story in Wyoming and Utah. Making nine stops in five days, Evangeline traveled around the area to tell about how receiving a shoebox changed her life. 

"I think it's very important that people hear their stories," Alison said of the spokespeople like Evangeline. "It makes it real. You can talk to somebody who really did get a shoebox, and it just helps us realize, too, that what we do does make a difference."

The impact of Operation Christmas Child

Last year, over 11 million shoeboxes were collected for Operation Christmas Child. These shoeboxes, filled with everything from school supplies to toys to clothing to hygiene items, are distributed in nearly 120 different countries. The boxes provide the opportunity to share needed items with children in poverty, and "to share Christ's love with children all over the world," Alison said. 

Last year, Southwest Wyoming alone donated over 2,300 shoeboxes to the program. This area of the state has four drop-off sites - First Assembly of God in Green River, Emmanuel Baptist in Rock Springs, Bridger Valley Baptist in Lyman, and Mount Calvary Chapel in Evanston. While these churches act as the official collection sites for shoeboxes, everyone is welcomed and encouraged to participate in the program. National collection week for the program is in November so that the boxes can be organized before Christmas, but Alison encouraged people to pick up items all through the year to be ready to send. 

"There's so much that we can do that honestly is very simple for us to do," Alison said. 

In addition to sharing her story, Evangeline and her family are actively involved in helping Operation Christmas Child and sending out shoeboxes each year.  

"The shoebox impacted my life in so many ways," she said, explaining that now she wants to give the same gift to others. 


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