Dear Shoebox Supporters,
Each year we take a team of people out to Eastern Europe to deliver your shoeboxes. This means that people can see and experience the reality of seeing the shoeboxes being recieved and the deep joy it brings. The team this year consisted of Camilla Johnson, Simon Graham, Chris Moreton and Maria Scard.
This years diary is from the view of Camilla Johnson who is an Area Collector and a long term supporter of the charity. We are publishing it in full as it gives an fantastic insight into the emotions and feelings that she experieced during her trip.
We received a warm welcome at the airport from Cornel Fedor, with whom we were going to work alongside delivering shoeboxes. A great welcome with a wonderful banner they had made especially for our arrival. After dropping our luggage where we were staying, we went to load the van and car with shoeboxes for our first deliveries. It was great to see the big Link to Hope boxes piled high in the store room.
Snow was gently falling over the heavy frost which still covered the ground, it was about -6. As we drove out for the first delivery the roads were not tarmacked anymore and got a lot rougher, with barely any other cars to be seen, the fog closed in around us, the edges of the tracks became almost invisible as there were no street lights to illuminate our way.
We pulled up outside a small house which is used as a church meeting place, piles of shoes outside in the freezing weather. The room was packed with people from the surrounding area, who greeted us warmly. They sang a few songs, and then Cornel spoke a little bit about the importance of looking after your neighbour, as he later explained that this is a value which he is trying to instil in this community.
It was great to hand out the boxes to these people, especially the elderly boxes and see the fruition of an idea which became apparent on a delivery trip to Iasi three years ago.
Clothes, toys and blankets which had been used as packing around the boxes, were also handed out, minor miracles really, when you pulled a coat out and it fitted someone perfectly. There was even a little lilac crocheted cardigan which even matched a young girl’s top, when this fitted the child, her mum beamed.
We stopped at another house later, on pulling up outside, Patricia (Cornel’s daughter) thought that everyone was out as there were no signs of life apart from a dog that was tied up and barking in the yard. Out of the house appeared an elderly man Gregore, he slowly walked over to us and seemed surprised by our presence. His wife Voichita shuffled out, leaning heavily on two walking sticks. They invited us into their home which was in utter darkness apart from the tiny glow of light which was coming from the fire under the stove.
By the light of Cornel’s torch and Maria’s photography light, we were able to see the inside of their meagre house, even though they had just a few possessions, they took great pride in them. They asked Cornel why we were visiting them, they were happy to be visited but were not used to guests, and firstly felt afraid, which soon turned to excitement. They apologised for not being dressed well and said if we returned in the summer maybe they could warm some milk for us.
Grigore had spent three weeks in hospital recently as he had had an operation for cancer in his mouth. During that time his wife had
really struggled as she could not bring in any wood for the fire.
They were so touched by the gifts in the elderly shoebox, which included a necklace which Cornel carefully put around Voichita’s neck, and she gently teased her husband that he could not eat the sweets yet as now it meant they had some for Christmas.
As we delivered boxes to the homes and at times stayed to watch the people open them, the great importance of each item becomes so apparent, soap is marvelled over, toys are examined in delight and the winter woollies are immediately put on as it is just so cold, but gets an awful lot colder!
Another really chilly day, even wrapped in our thermals it is cold, a really harsh environment for people with so little and often such inadequate housing.
Our first stop was at a small school in Ghirott, with a total of about 25 pupils, the head teacher Aurelia has been teaching there for 34 years and taught many of the children’s parents. The art work in the classroom was amazing, pencil sharpenings used as turkey feathers, and pieces of paper folded intricately then wedged together to form little sculptures. The head teacher’s father was there Dor he had been the postman in the locality for many many years and would later escort us on our visits.
Cornel showed the class the Link to Hope banner, and the British flag, explaining the journey of the shoeboxes, and how they had been filled with such love as gifts.
The children’s’ response to the shoebox gifts was magical, opening them so carefully and examining each item so carefully in awe and wonder, often questioning what it was. One child of about 8 spent ages looking at a pretty candle, turning it round and round in her hands, eventually turning to the teacher to ask her what it was.
We tore ourselves away from that happy place and stood on the rutted road outside, a man came down the hill in his horse and cart, stopping to talk to Cornel, who knew him well, he was so pleased to be given a family box to take home. There was an elderly lady in the house opposite, chopping wood in her yard; Simon went to help her, which made her laugh. She too was pleased to be given a shoebox.
We watched as the children began to walk home from school, none of them, however little, were met by parents. All of them setting off in different directions, down the mud track or across fields, to walk what are probably great distances, home.
As we moved from house to house delivering boxes, Cornel reiterated that for these people this is the only gift they will receive, until the possibility of them receiving a box next year. This is only the third year that they have received shoeboxes at all in this area which explains the total disbelief, shock and excitement, then the heartfelt thanks when the boxes are handed over.
Most of the afternoon was spent driving to various houses distributing shoeboxes. The first was my Christmas moment, one to be treasured. An elderly lady Florica welcomed us; I was holding a nice heavy elderly box, ready to pass to her. Florica explained how last night she had stood before God in church and prayed for reading glasses. From all the boxes we had already given out, or even from the fifty or so elderly boxes we had packed at home, I have hardly seen any reading glasses. I ran my finger down Florica’s list – yes, it was ticked. We asked her to open the box, and we all leaned in to look at the contents. There, nestled in the top was a brand new pair of reading glasses. I took them out and carefully put them on Florica, they even matched the colours in her outfit! She praised God in total delight that He had heard her prayer and answered it. It was perfect, and Maria managed to capture the unfolding story in a series of photographs.
Next to another home we delivered to were four ramshackle walls, what was left of a tiny one roomed dwelling. Cornell said that in 20011 there was a terrible storm, the roof of the house had collapsed, killing the elderly widow who lived there. The simple bed which she had been sleeping was still there, as were her possessions, as people were too afraid to steal them.
Dor, the head teacher’s father continued to take us from house to house, it was great to see the relationship that he had with these people and the respect and love they had for Cornell. Dor told Cornell that he was so pleased to have this role with the shoebox deliveries, as he always wanted to help these people, but now that he was retired he didn’t know how he could do so. Putting together a list of names of people in desperate need, the co-ordinating our deliveries meant a lot to him, and when we eventually took him back home he had such a smile on his face.
Cornell took us to visit another family, known well to him. The husband used to have many problems, once Cornell went to their house, found Marin (the father) and his wife drunk, the children cold, dirty and hungry with barely any clothes on were playing outside in the snow. Cornell spoke powerfully to him, explaining how he could not continue to live like that. Cornel has continued to work with him, visiting him regularly to encourage him to build a new life.
Once Cornell visited it was -12, Marin’s wife was outside in the yard washing clothes, which froze as soon as she pulled them out of the water Cornell told Marin, that if he managed to get a pipe laid for water, he would see that they would be provided with a washing machine. Marin was really motivated to do this, and soon had a pipe laid from a spring helping him. Cornell was not sure how he would get hold of a washing machine,
but one day a business man spoke to him in church and said that he wanted to do something to help but he was not sure what. Cornel seized the opportunity and took him to buy a washing machine for this family, which has made a huge difference as they have 11 children!
We were invited into their tiny, clean and warm home, not all of the children were there, but those who were gathered around the small table in open eyed wonder. The parents explained how they are now trying to teach their children how to take responsibility by doing chores in the house and garden from an early age. Cornell is really trying to teach them family values and they seemed to be a focused loving family who are working together to improve their situation, they received the Family shoebox with joy.
Another elderly couple we visited seemed to be resigned to despair, the husband Ion was in bed, 87 years old, his wife who was 78 was quietly saying how difficult it is to care for him, they have no children to help them. To spent time with them listening and showing how much you care is great. This visit surely showed the importance of Cornel’s aim to establish community links of support between neighbours.
Our first stop was a school which had a new kindergarten funded by EU money; the clean environment must be a welcome relief for the children who attend it, most of them coming from such poor homes. They loved opening the boxes, two little girls sitting next to each other had received a soft toy each and they spent time playing together with them with was lovely to see. The slightly older children enjoyed going through the contents, telling you which item would go to which member of the family.
Off we went to Fizes, a settlement across a deep riverbed, which had a few geese poking about in the rubbish for scraps.
The small community came out to greet us, apparently last year these people had been wary and
distrusting, unsure of why they were having Western visitors, their faces wore closed expressions and they were not friendly, this meant we were a little apprehensive when getting out of the vehicles.
Cornel encouraged us each to introduce ourselves, saying a little bit about ourselves, and he, with the aid of the Link to Hope Banner, and Union Flag, explained the shoebox story.
These people proved to be so helpful and friendly; they were a delight to be with.
The ‘homes’ were usually little more than ramshackle hovels, many of them built of mud and wood. Icy slopes covered with rags to stop them being slippery, holes in windows stuffed with rags.
One man lived in a tiny, really tiny lean to room, mud walls and floor, his bed merely a plank of wood resting on a plastic crate and a broken television. No possessions, just a pile of straw in a corner.
It turned out that this man had been caught by police dragging some branches out of some woods by his belt, because he had an axe in his hand he was accused of chopping the wood down, which is illegal here. In Romania you are only permitted to gather fallen wood. He was sent to jail for 2 ½ years, during which time his wife left him and he lost everything. We opened the elderly shoebox with him, in it was a solar powered wind up radio, which Simon showed him how to tune in, when a Romanian radio station stated playing in that tiny unheated room his face was a picture!
Another elderly man 71years old with piercing blue eyes, invited us up to his home, which was up a steep undulating (that makes it sound quaint, it wasn’t it was a death trap!) mud covered icy slope, which had bits of wood banged into it at intervals in a vain attempt to create some kind of grip/stair.
His house was little more than rough sawn branches and mud. Inside pitch black, a pile of dirty rags/clothes in one corner and a platform with some filthy blankets which served as his bed. He invited me in but it was a tight squeeze. Again, there was a wind up torch for this man, after being shown how to use it; he laid it reverently on his bed as thought was the most precious thing to him in the world. He was then very effusive in demonstrative thanks, spitting on his hand to wipe his kiss from Maria’s cheek! He very quietly, shyly asked if we had any warm clothes, and we were so pleased to be able to find him a blanket and some other items which had been used as packing around the boxes.
Another boy of about 8/9 years old was holding his shoebox back from the crowd, I went ove
r to him and went through the customs list, explaining what was in it. When it came to gloves/scarves/hat, he asked if there were gloves in the box, I said I wasn’t sure, as although the box was ticked, I didn’t know which one was inside. He said he was really hoping for gloves as his hands were cold. Then I remembered that I had some with me, as I was given some items to bring out the night before we left. He was delighted and held the new gloves tightly.
There was such a community spirit in this place, with the men and young boys helping to carry the bigger boxes around the muddy tracks, followed by a group of excited mums and children, who shared in the excitement of their neighbours opening boxes. The importance of warm gloves/scarfs/hats in these boxes cannot be over stressed. People need them desperately; it’s just so cold and gets an awful lot colder than this.
We drove back the relatively short distance to the warehouse and reloaded with boxes, taking them to a community where the locals were gathering for a concert. On stage were a group of young teenagers playing mandolins and singing, also there was a singing group of older teenagers. Cornel and another man spoke, then they invited Chris up to speak. Chris really had the audience’s attention as Cornell translated, and by the end there was a group of children on stage creating a human picture of the nativity, ably assisted by Simon as a tree!
At the end of the service we loaded two big tables with shoeboxes, one table for families, one of elderly. Chris and Simon handed out the family boxes, as there were many families; they both enjoyed interacting with the children and making them smile. I handed out the elderly boxes. It was amazing how, so many of the elderly wanted a hug, a kiss and to wish them Peace and a Happy Christmas, then they would begin to walk away, having no expectation of receiving the gift of a shoebox, despite the table being piled high with them! Very humbling. People clutched their boxes and disappeared into the cold night air, walking off down unlit, rutted, muddy roads.
In the evening we were invited to the home of Cornel and his wife Adela, where she had prepared a delicious meal with us, and was happy to share her recipes. As I got my glasses from the case I saw a piece of paper in it, which I always keep there, I drew it out and read it to Cornel,(which is hard to do with a lump in your throat!) as it seemed to so perfectly sum up his role with the impoverished communities here;
‘Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.
Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage, anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.
What does Love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what Love looks like.’
We woke to a layer of snow outside, so layered up in thermals ready to face the day.
We firstly went to load up again with shoeboxes. The workshop net to the store room was open and we admired the incredible workmanship of the carpenters inside who had carved huge ornate screens, lecterns and chairs for a church. Amazing craftsmanship.
The first small community was fairly close to where we were staying their dilapidated houses squashed between the homes of locals, as though they were being squeezed out of society.
These families gathered in family groups to receive their boxes, stood against a pile of bits of wood and rubbish, when a door opened in the middle of it we realised that someone lived there!
I cuddled one little girl whose teeth were chattering so badly, in my pocket I had a woolly hat which I pulled down over her ears. Chris made a great job of handing out clothes to the needy people, and the children responded happily to his sense of fun. The people here were even more filthy, if that’s possible, than the community by the river, but somehow, when you are here amongst them, sharing a moment which is so unique, it doesn’t bother you, even though you seem to absorb the smell yourself, but fortunately we are able to shower at the end of the day.
This leads on to the next deliveries where I experienced my most harrowing visit ever. We had delivered a box to an elderly blind lady, and also another lavender bag which she loved. Simon and Cornell explained the contents of her box to her as she was unable to see them, she was so effusive in her thanks.
At the next house, slowly, painfully a dejected looking elderly man with Parkinsons hobbled out of the broken door, to receive an elderly shoebox. Cornel said that neither he nor anybody else ever goes in this house, as the smell is just too bad. His sick wife lies in bed permanently and has done for a very long time, she just has to go to the toilet where she lays, and her husband finds it so hard to clear up. I didn’t feel able just to walk away, knowing that she could hear what was going on outside her door, and not being part of the experience, so I said to Cornel that I would like to go in, he warned me again how bad it was. I entered the gloomy room and the sickening stench enveloped me, I could taste it. There in the gloom lay his wife, and on the other side of the room a man. I bent down and stroked her face, talking quietly to her, in my hand I had a lavender bag from my mother’s garden, I placed it into her hand and held it to her nose. Who would have thought a simple lavender bag could change your life? Her eyes and face lit up as she inhaled deeply. For the first time in a very long time she was able to revel in the smell of something sweet in her home, masking the stomach turning stench of her own filth. I gave one to the man on the other side and spent time talking quietly to him and stroking his face. It was so, so hard to say farewell and walk out of there but how blessed was I to then be able to inhale the pure cold fresh air.
We drove out to deliver to some families living up almost impassable tracks in the hills, people came out in the freezing afternoon air, inadequately dressed against the cold, to greet us, one elderly lady was very proud of a young boy who now lived with her after spending the first few years of his life in an orphanage. These people again, were genuinely surprised and delighted to receive a shoebox, filled with undreamt of luxuries.
The last family we visited was the one I gave my family shoebox to. Cornell told us their tale. The husband Mobra and wife Lucica used to be highly dependent on alcohol as they had so little hope in their lives, they didn’t appear to care about anything or have any desire to change. Cornel was told about them by neighbours and went to visit them, finding their children and horse neglected and hungry. Over the years he has worked closely with them giving them little aims to achieve one at a time. The family responded well to this, and wanted Cornell to visit the weekly to inspect their progress, Some of the first aims were to care for the horse as it was vital to their wellbeing as it was used for the cart. Also to take better care of the children by feeding them at least once a day, and sending them to school to enable them to receive an education (the father is illiterate) He encouraged them to build a better home to live in rather than the tumbledown shed, which is now used to house the stock of animals that Mobra has worked hard to build up. Cornel told him to ask elderly local people whether, in return for some crops, he could farm their small strip of land. This has proved to be successful, so now he is able to harvest a small amount for his animals and family.
The home they live in with their four children and brand new baby is basic but very warm, their net aim is to level the bumpy mud floor which is at present just covered with rugs, and pour some concrete over it, maybe one day even to put some wood over the top.
I was able to cuddle the rather gorgeous baby whist the children opened my shoebox with their mother. There were some really prettily wrapped items donated by a friend of mine, all wrapped in gift ribbon, furry animals hats, jewellery, cellophane wrapped shower gel, soaps and flannel and many other gifts to fill every corner of the box. There was also a bright tie which I put on Mobra, you could almost see him grow in stature as he wore it. It was a real encouragement to see such a poor family have a hope for the future, with Cornells constant support, they have already accomplished so much.
As we left Mobra offered us a Duck to take to kill for tonight’s dinner. Simon was very good at persuading him that we would be more than happy with just a photograph of Mobra, Simon and the duck! But what generosity, from someone with so little!!
A great visit to end with.
Camilla & Team