The journey begins

The arrival and gift opening

The best present of all

The children of Chiapas

The journey begins

Emma Poole
Calgary Herald
Chiapas, Mexico

Team photo

The Canadian team on the OCC Mission trip to Chiapas, Mexico, December 2000.

Calgary teenagers Laura Buhler and Alyssa Wiggins are full of the Christmas spirit - but they have a problem. They're parceling up a gift for someone far away, but what do you get for someone you've never met, someone who has never been given a Christmas present in their life, someone with basically nothing.

Buhler and Wiggins know they're lucky. They have comfortable homes and go to a good school. The recipients of the shoebox they're busy filling with good cheer are Mexican children who live in a white stucco orphanage and have to share their few possessions with 70 other kids who have been abandoned, abused and neglected.

The Calgary teens, Grade 9 students at Glenmore Christian Academy in southwest Calgary, can only guess at the conditions in which those who will benefit from their generosity live, But they realize the time they spend filling the boxes is going to change at least two lives forever. Their little piece of Christmas spirit is going to go a long way this year - all the way to Latin America, as part of Operation Christmas Child.

Their boxes will travel almost 5,000 kilometers to the war-torn southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where they will be hand-delivered by a team of Canadians, including eight Calgarians. The team, the girls know, will hike high into the Mexican mountains to make sure the orphans won't go without this Christmas.

The Calgary boxes and almost 650,000 others from across Canada were filled with gifts earlier this month and will be distributed to 20 countries as part of Operation Christmas Child, a project of the international Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse. For eight years, Operation Christmas Child has supplied children of war, famine, poverty or natural disaster with a little bit of happiness in otherwise desperate situations.

More than 28,000 Calgary-packed boxes have been sent to Mexico to be distributed throughout orphanages and hospitals in Guadalajara. Another 2,000 boxes - including those of the two Calgary teens' - will find their way to southern Mexico and in particular to four locations in Chiapas. "It's very cool to share the joy of Christmas with people who don't usually get it," says Buhler. "It's just a thing that we do in our house. I can't remember a year when we didn't pack shoeboxes." Buhler's box is destined for a little girl aged between five and nine.

She and Wiggins, packing for a boy of the same age, have scoured the shelves of the local Wal-Mart, for just the right gifts. For less than $30, Buhler has picked up an oversized bag of Skittles, a Barbie doll, a funky pair of socks, some hair clips, Silly Putty and basics like soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush. Wiggins is packing a toy truck and has also bought toiletries, a wristwatch filled with candy, socks and a colouring book. "You think of new things every year to pack," says Wiggins. "I think it's one of those things. It was fun (packing) it."

Calgarian John Clayton knows just how special the shoeboxes are to the children of Mexico. As a director at Samaritan's Purse, Clayton has visited the area on several occasions and has seen the devastation two earthquakes, mass poverty and years of guerrilla warfare have had on the region and its people. Three years ago, he visited the Casa Hogar Alegre orphanage in Tuxtla Gutierrez and promised he would bring help from Canada.

This year he's bringing help again in the form of medical care, food and shoeboxes for needy children. The children who live in the orphanages are well off in comparison to some of Mexico's kids. At least they have decent shelter and food. However, most of the children in Chiapian villages live in squalor. They run around without shoes and drink water from lagoons littered with garbage and fecal material from animals which graze alongside the banks. A pair of socks from a shoe box may be the only thing the children have to keep their feet warm. They have never seen colouring books and crayons and a stuffed toy is a luxury.

Lily Di Gregorio of Montreal and Ivan Giesbrecht of Calgary stands in line as they are waiting to check-in their bagage at Mexico City Airport before flying to Tuxtla Gutierrez in the Chiapas region of Mexico.

The Calgarians on the OCC distribution team - John Klassen, Gary Paukert, Rick Russell, Ivan Giesbrecht, Chris Stephens, Don McIntosh and Neil Scott - meet for the first time at Calgary International Airport. It is the first leg of a journey which will lead them into the mountains and villages of Chiapas, where hundreds of Mexicans have been killed in the last six years due to civil war. In Houston, Tex., the Calgary team will link up with several more Canadians - Dr. Allan Walker from Edmonton, Lily DI Gregorio from Montreal, Don and Michael Neufeld from Saskatoon, Randy Pries from Winnipeg, and the Toronto contingent of Garth Leno, Angela Tompkins, Trevor Ancoin, and Reynold and Kathy Mainse - and board another plane bound for Mexico City then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas.

Chiapas is one of Mexico's most unequal states, where one river produces more than 50 per cent of the nation's hydroelectric power, yet about one-third of the homes lack electricity. More than 30 per cent of the population is Indian and speaks various Mayan dialects, not Spanish like in the major metropolitan centres. Among the mountains of Chiapas, Balaclava-clad rebels called the Zapatistas roam the dense jungles and have been locked in an uneasy truce with the Mexican government for years.

The Canadian team will enter into areas warning of rebel activity and come close to the Zapatista headquarters, just a few kilometres from the town of San Cayetano, where they will give out almost 1,000 shoeboxes to kids from the area. Some of those children will walk for six kilometres one way for the special delivery.

The team will deliver thousands of boxes, including ones packed by their families, to the children of Mexico. They will set up makeshift clinics to examine patients, many of whom would visit a doctor for the first and last time.

The group will also venture into the mountains to deliver bags of beans and rice to villagers who can afford to eat little more than tortillas made from their own small corn crops.

It's a six-day mission with its beginnings way back in Calgary.

The expedition will show the people of Mexico that Canadians care.

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Copyright © 2000, Photographer Mikael Kjellström, All rights reserved