Christmas comes early in Sea Cliff

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When Yulia Shubina, 25, was growing up in Central Asia, a simple toothbrush was considered a luxury. In her family everyone used the same toothbrush. Imagine her excitement upon receiving a shoebox filled with gifts the likes of which she’d never received before. She shared her story with members of the parish of the United Methodist Church of Sea Cliff on Saturday, Sept. 30, made possible by Operation Christmas Child. The nationwide project sends a message of hope to children all across the world living in poverty, where there is disaster, and war.

On “packing day,” volunteers fill shoeboxes with toys, books, school supplies, and hygienic products to be shipped out to local churches in different countries. The shoeboxes then find its way into the hands of children in need, inspiring joy, a feeling that local OCC volunteer, Bonnie Watkins, feels every child should experience.

Watkins, who has lived in Sea Cliff for eight years, started her journey with the project as a way to get her children involved in the community. “It’s great when they help fill a shoe box for a kid who’s just like them,” she said. “With each shoebox comes an opportunity for the kids to hear that someone loves them, and they wouldn’t get that any other way [if not for this project].”

In early winter of 2001, Shubina’s father came home from the orphanage he was volunteering at with two shoeboxes. Samaritan’s Purse, the international relief organization that created OCC, was providing aid to her home country and distributing shoeboxes to the volunteers supporting its efforts.

Shubina, then nine, saw the purple container but waited a while before unveiling the contents inside. When she finally built up the courage, she opened the shoebox, and was greeted with a small, stuffed puppy. She shared this plush treasure with her sister, cousins, and friends, since toys were a rarity. Another item she received that she said ended up making a mundane task her favorite activity was bubblegum flavored toothpaste. Shubina was also given an Etch-a-Sketch, which she said was kept at first kept on display in her home. That’s because she and her sister initially had no clue how to use it.

But the most important gift she received had no material value. It was a letter from a girl named Katie who lived in North Carolina. The last two lines of the letter read, “I am praying for you,” and “God loves you.”

These messages touched Shubina deeply, who was unfamiliar with worship, as “believers” in her country were forced to meet in secret to avoid religious persecution. “I remember something being stirred in my heart,” she said. “There was a curiosity about who this girl — who had never met me — was, and why she was praying for me.”

It was something that was hard for her to put into words. “Being able to meet her, and stay with her in the room where she wrote her letters to me is something that you can’t come up with yourself,” she explained. “It’s something that I know was orchestrated by God.”

The shoebox, the treasure trove of gifts and the heartfelt letter from a stranger, helped Shubina believe in God, and ultimately brought her to America. Now, 16 years later at 25, Shubina works for Samaritan’s Purse, giving back what was given to her.

“A lot of volunteers that I have met have been doing this for years and sometimes they begin to wonder if this is making a difference, and if it’s really worth it,” she said. “When I share I see that people get encouraged because they are the ones who make my testimony possible, and the smallest thing I can do is share what God has done through a shoebox gift very similar to the ones that they pack.”

Operation Christmas Child will host their community packing party on Nov. 11 at 3 p.m. at the United Methodist Church of Sea Cliff. For more information about how to get involved, contact Bonnie Watkins at k_b_watkins@hotmail.com.