Shoebox Delivery Diary 2017
This is the Shoebox Delivery Diary that reports back how your shoeboxes were delivered and to whom. We are only able to go to one place each year and this year it was to Central Romania.
This year the team consisted of Lisa, Milly, Wendy, Alan, Helen & Maria.
First stop was with Cornelui our Shoebox co-ordinator based in Hunedoara. It was to a centre for ex orphanage children 18+ who have additional special needs and wouldn’t be able to survive independent living. The age they are would be the age of the children in the Romanian Orphanage where Milly one of our team, worked in the early 90s. We were told that these people came from all over Romania.
The behaviour of these young adults had strong echoes of the orphanage behaviour, but so good to see them a world away from the days of the bleak and oppressive orphanages. The staff were lovely, really interacting with the young adults and outwardly caring in their routine. What a lovely, welcome change for them after a horrific orphanage childhood. They started singing some us some songs and reciting some poems, which they clearly enjoyed doing, some of the more able, helping the less able to clap along.
Our next stop was to an ex-army barracks which had been converted into a state funded old people’s home. It was really faith filled, we were showered with praise and prayers as we gave out the Elderly boxes, usually accompanied by a hug and kiss.
Many of the residents were patiently waiting for us in the canteen, along with members of staff, who again were really interactive with the residents. A few people were happy to open them, one lady found a folding plastic rain hat, which sent her into fits of giggle. So great to have an item in the shoebox which makes someone smile. Another elderly lady had makeup brushes, she chuckled as Milly pretended to apply blusher to her, she also had strawberry flavoured lip balm, and a bundle of emery boards, so we filed all her calloused nails for her.
As we went to leave, one of the residents, ‘Puitzi’ presented Lisa with the most beautiful painting he had done. It showed so much talent. Lisa was quite taken aback at such a gift – especially when he then bowed with an artistic flourish, and kissed her hand. How great that at that Old People’s home, residents are able to be creative. They were clearly happy and well cared for.
Then time for a huge contrast. Delivery to the ‘Phantom Flats’, the most terrible place to live. There were about 80 families living in this dilapidated block. Each family lived in one room measuring about 3m x 5m which meant that often up to 9 people were crammed in one room.
There were very basic communal toilets on each floor, with one long metal sink, the floor running with…water? The corridors were strewn with lines of fresh washing strung along the walls, which actually smelt ok, unlike most of the rooms people were living in.
The dark concrete stairs up the five floors of the building were crumbling and broken. It was pretty dark as the windows were boarded up, so you had to concentrate on the stairs, whilst carrying the shoeboxes. Excited crowds gathered at our arrival, we were warned to be very aware of what was in our pockets, as it may well not still be there as the end of our visit.
The walls inside and out, were beyond filthy, utterly grim. Cornelui was telling us this block has actually improved greatly over the last few years, people were decorating and taking more of a pride in their homes which also raises their spirits. However, one of our team described the air here as ‘fetid’ and we found ourselves wondering just how quickly a disease such as measles, would spread through this community.
Each family waited at their door to receive their shoebox, but yet again, needed encouragement to open them. Each time we make a delivery to a tenement block, there is often an air of tension, which increases as we work our way through the floors. Its often just simply that people are worried that they will be forgotten. We worked fairly quickly, which helped to prevent the tension escalating too much.
One of the last families we visited here was quite an upsetting visit. A family of 4, who had just lived there for 2 months. Mum was in agony with toothache, one of the daughters dressed so inadequately, shivering in
the cold, with blue lips. Their room was so bare, a single light bulb shedding light on the bare concrete floor, one small bed, a bicycle, a few meagre possessions and precious little else. Milly had some lovely knitted hairbands in her pockets, which she passed over, and a beautiful scarf, given to her by amazing knitting supporters back home. We fervently prayed that their nicely heavy shoebox contained items which will bring this family some happiness, but also will be of great practical use to them.
This family was, we were assured, grateful to be now living in the Phantom Flats, as they had moved there from Riverside. Apparently Phantom Flats is a real improvement on living at Riverside. We were about to find out why….
Riverside is literally that. Little more than a shanty town huddled in a haphazard way on the side of a river, in the shadows of a huge archaic metal works factory which was belching black smoke, and occasional tongues of flame. Just above the jumbled array of tumbledown dwellings there were excavators in a deep hole, working away, looking as though any moment they would be excavating under the ‘homes’.
One dwelling, little more than a flimsy cabin, constructed with many different inadequate materials, was balanced precariously on the edge of the mine.The owner, who clearly, like the majority of the people living here was not able to indulge in the simple delights of washing – either himself of his clothing, warmly beckoned us into his home. There was no lighting, and it took quite a while for our eyes to grow accustomed to the smoke-filled gloom.
People started gathering on our arrival, we were bundled up against the cold to keep warm. It was quite shocking to see the squalor in which people lived, dwellings precariously standing, looking draughty and so unappealing as a place in which to live. When we went into the homes they were always stiflingly hot, so much so that our glasses and Maria’s camera steamed up rapidly!
Cornelui assured us that he is encouraged to see how this community is shrinking, as people are happy to move to the Phantom Flats, we realised that they were indeed a step up from the Riverside community.
Our last trip of the day was to a recently renovated hospice for Elderly folk. Alan was with one lady who opened her shoeboxes and found a corset and tights in it. She thought it was very funny and happily posed with her new underwear.
The Director, her daughter and another lady accompanied us as we worked our way through the maze of rooms, floor by floor in the home. We were so impressed by the way they related with the residents, so tactile, with a genuine rapport with them.
The hospice was quite large, with about 60 people in all, great to see married couples sharing a room together, with personal possessions around them.
A long drive from Sibiu to Sighisoara, through the stunning countryside. Roads lined with colourful medieval looking homes, nestled together. The snow was falling softly, covering the hills and laying a little. We were aware how fortunate we were to have a choice of warm layers to wear and a warm, spacious safe place to rest our heads whilst we are here.
We spent the day with David, an English man who came over here to do some short term mission work about 20 years ago, ended up getting married and staying…
Our first trip was to an underfunded old people’s home. It was warm and clean, the people there looked well cared for, but in some of the rooms there was a strong unpleasant smell of long term incontinence.
Again, residents had some of their personal possessions, each of their bedroom being unique, which must help with the feeling settled. Some of the elderly people were visibly struggling with health issues, one wizened old lady on the brink of unconsciousness, clearly nearing the end of her life. Staff said she had just a day or two left on earth. David spent time with her, praying and speaking words of peace and a release from fear over her. She still received a shoebox, how perfect that in her last few hours on earth she was able to sense love in the form of touch, soft words and the power of love in the form of a shoebox gift.
The quality of the boxes varied tremendously, some were jammed packed with beautiful gifts, some with wonderfully thick fleecy socks, and even one with a hot water bottle. It is so frustrating when you pick up a box which really rattles to give to somebody, or maybe it just has a very few ticks or such a scribbled label that you have no idea what is inside. We much prefer to pass over shoeboxes which we ourselves would be happy to receive.
In the afternoon we went to a village where David and the team are involved in children’s work. We were welcomed into a small building where 30/40 children and some adults were crammed into one small room onto five long pews. They sung us some songs, a couple of which we were able to join in with, the children then settled down to watch a bible story on film. For one little boy in the front row, it was his first time and when the film popped up he was totally taken aback, pointing at the screen in amazement! The concentration was only broken with cries of ‘more ketchup please ’ which was clearly the highlight of the snack.
Whilst the children were tucking into their rolls and watching the film, we walked around the village in the chilly fading afternoon sun, with David, distributing shoeboxes. He called the people out of the homes by their names, they were clearly surprised to see us, they had no idea we were coming.
Another lady appeared unexpectedly from her home with a bowl of sweet tangerines and halved bananas, she was so pleased to be able to offer something to us.
One little girl of about 10yrs old was really crying and David explained that she felt so much for Alan, when she saw his lack of legs. She has a real heart of compassion and mercy. She was eventually persuaded to come out and receive her shoebox from Alan. Her mum and dad were with her, her dad had been the one translating everything into Hungarian, and both her parents are involved in the mission work in this village. After they had spent time with Alan, she cheered up, which was good to see.
The next day we were collected by a young driver called Bogdan. As it was a long drive we talked to him about why we there. He was amazed and told us that he recalled how, about 10 years ago he and his family had received a shoebox filled with gifts at Christmas. He remembered his parents response to the unexpected gift, how they loved the basic items such as shampoo and soap, which Bogdan said people are so appreciative to receive – essential items for shoeboxes. He told us how his friend had a small metal puzzle in his box which they played with so much – again, highlighting the importance of having an item in ‘to make people smile’. But the thing which really touched us was when he said that he still has, and regularly uses, a screwdriver set which was in the shoebox. He keeps it in the glove compartment of his car, and it is still a very special possession to him.
We were taken to a nearby, newly set up centre where the focus is to integrate people with disabilities and Hungarian people, with others in their community. Apparently people who fall into these categories, find it doubly hard to be accepted as part of the community. Alan took the opportunity to speak to them about his journey and how his disability had not stopped him achieving many, many things. We were fortunate to have time to spend in just being alongside these people in their activities, whether it was colouring, games, crochet or just chatting, interacting with them and getting to hear their stories.
Otto invited us to distribute a selection of family and elderly boxes to the people here, they were so joyful when they opened them. One elderly man was delighted with a pair of glasses, even though he
only had one functioning eye! Alan also gave him a football scarf which he was over the moon with. There was a lady sitting at the side of the room, discreetly dabbing at her eyes with her scarf. Milly went to sit with her to comfort her. It turned out her husband was diagnosed with cancer just 8 weeks ago, and sadly died 4 weeks ago. She has a severely autistic adult son (who was also there at the centre) who doesn’t understand that his father has died, and keeps asking when he is coming home.
Our final stop of the afternoon was to a classroom, in a fairly poor village, next to a wide, yet shallow, fast flowing river, which banks were strewn with rubbish. Maria and Lisa had last been to this village 10 years ago. Through the work of the FAST charity who receive shoeboxes from Link to Hope, the village has improved greatly and a classroom back then would have been unheard of.
We entered to find a couple of rows of wide eyed children sitting down, waiting to greet us. These children are part of a programme, and clearly enjoyed it. They sung some songs to welcome us, the watched as we built a wall of shoeboxes in front of them, before inviting them one by one, to come and receive a box, not many smiles, we had to work hard to get them!
The next day a minibus was loaded with 1400 shoeboxes and taken to a school in a local village. When we arrived at the school about ten minutes later, the outside area was filled with orderly lines of children. Each line was headed up with the class teacher who had a list of names, which were dutifully ticked off as each child was called forwards to receive their box
It was lovely handing these boxes out, pretty much all the children said thank you, many in English. Some were shivering, as it was still cold and snowy. We hoped there were plenty of warm items in the boxes. A horde of parents were jostling to see through the school gates, as apparently it is quite a volatile community, so were advised to stay well back from the school gates. We were allowed to go into one class that came to life when they opened the boxes, taking out items one by one, often questioning what they were. They were delighted with the big bars of chocolate, and immediately tucked them back in the boxes for safe keeping.
Our afternoon trip was about an hour’s drive away to an isolated Roma community. The team seemed to grow considerably, which was most helpful, as we had to carry the filled outer cartons up a steep, muddy, snowy, icy, deeply rutted, narrow track, at times having to climb over rickety fences, whilst trying not to fall over. Apparently, when Ceausescu was in power he forced all Roma communities to
be banished from their neighbourhoods, to isolated rural areas, away from anybody else. Many people are still living like this. The village we visited had limited electricity and one pipe for water which had to be trekked over the hill to. A difficult walk down the mountain to local amenities. Even more difficult for the elderly people to manage during the long winter months. Each day the children have to walk down the hill to school, none of them had tough hiking boots, and yet again, not really adequately dressed against the cold.
We were here with a man called Florin, who had a great relationship with these people, and had earned their respect through listening and responding to their needs. He has such a heart for this community, wanting them to feel valued and loved.
They people here had asked for a church as many of them have come to faith. Initially just a few people met on a Sunday, and a lady offered her home as a venue. Soon the congregation grew so much that they did not fit in the room, so needed to use the yard outside. They now meet outside every week throughout the year, whatever the weather.
A small crowd had gathered in the yard, and parents watched proudly as their children stood forward to recite poems and sing songs, some clearly nervous of performing in front of strangers.
One little girl ‘Yasmina’ stood forward, took a breath and began to pray, which was translated for us… “Dear Lord, thank you for my nice warm home, clothes and toys, but there are people who do not have any of these things. We are grateful for what we have. Amen” Wow. This girl was praying from the heart, truly appreciative of the very little she has, it was a humbling moment.
There was a young girl there with Downs Syndrome. We were impressed with the way in which she was very much part of the group, no discrimination, just acceptance. She was very animated, and the gift of a fidget spinner immediately captured her attention.
We visited a Grandma who was looking after two young boys, Mario and Alexandru, as their mother had left to work in Germany, and sends money back to help them. The grandma has only recently returned home after a stay in hospital for problems with her head and ears. She struggles to get down to the village for supplies as it is such a challenging hike down the hill. Her son and grandson have just left the village and moved elsewhere.
Sometimes, when we deliver shoeboxes to communities like this, there can be an air of hostility, which often comes from the fact that people think they may be passed over for a box. There was none of that here, people were happy to wait, and we had to approach them to offer them a shoebox.
We slid our way back down the steep, stony, rutted track down the mountainside, much easier now we were not carrying the shoeboxes, but just as slippy. At the bottom, we were welcomed into a farmstead and ushered into the kitchen area where chunks of freshly butchered pig were bubbling away on the stove.
The family were celebrating the killing of the pig, as is traditional at this time of year here. We were invited to join them in eating some. They placed on the table big chunks of tender meat with thick juicy crackling, tasty sausages with garlic and herbs, plus a thick roll of pate. There were also hunks of homemade bread, sliced fresh onion and some lovely mustard. It really felt like a banquet, they took so much pleasure in sharing it with us, and we felt honoured to accept.
Our last delivery was to a small hamlet, just a cluster of insubstantial homes. Families came out to huddle in the cold in their doorways to receive a shoebox, quite taken aback at our arrival.
One little boy stood shivering with his mother, her clothes so inadequate, and they both looked so sad. Milly had the shoebox which she had been carrying with her for most of the week, knowing she would find exactly the person to give it to. Milly explained quite how special this shoebox was, filled with so many things, lots of them from friends, and how she hoped that it would bring them a lot of happiness at Christmas for both of them.
It has been a week of contrasts, highs and emotionally challenging time, but each of us on the Shoebox Delivery team this year felt blessed to be a small part of something so amazing.
Diary written by Milly Johnson and edited by Lisa Hector. Photos taken by Maria Scard www.mariascard.com