The journey begins

The arrival and gift opening

The best present of all

The children of Chiapas

The arrival and gift opening

Emma Poole
Calgary Herald
Chiapas, Mexico

Gloria Franco Micelli is all smiles minus her two front teeth, with her box during the distribution of shoe boxes at the Orphanage Casa Hogar Alegre in the town Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas Region, Mexico.

Gloria Franco Micelli knew there was something special in the shoebox, but she didn't dare open it until Mama Liz gave the go-ahead.

So she sat there with the big parcel in her little lap, closed with two elastic bands.

Gloria waited as, one by one, the orphans at Casa Hogar Alegre in Tuxtla Gutierrez in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas received a hand-packed shoebox as part of Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan's Purse.

Gloria's shoebox was packed by Calgary teenager Laura Buhler, a Grade 9 student at Glenmore Christian Academy.

Buhler's friend, Alyssa Wiggins, had also packed a shoebox full of treats. Her box was now in the hands of seven-year-old orphan Louis Lopez Cancino.

Both Louis and Gloria have lived at the orphanage for the better part of their lives.

Abused and then abandoned on the steps of the modest compound located in the hills above the bustling metropolis of Tuxtla, they have waited all year for the group of Canadians to come for a visit and bring along the thousands of shoeboxes for distribution in southern Mexico.

This year's team - including Calgarians John Klassen, Gary Paukert, Rick Russell, Ivan Giesbrecht, Chris Stephens, Don McIntosh, John Clayton and Neil Scott - arrived just in time for Christmas, sweeping into the orphanage like a posse of Santas.

Gloria and Louis are just two of the almost 100,000 Mexican children who will receive a gift this year packed by a Canadian - with no strings attached.

Another 600,000 boxes packed by Canadians will be distributed worldwide to children in more than 20 countries.
Elizabeth Castelaso Noguera, known as Mama Liz to her orphans, owns and operates Casa Hogar. She wanted the delivery day to be special.

As the Canadian team arrived at the complex, the large white gates swung open and dozens of children came running with arms wide open and smiles from ear to ear.

They had been told the gifts were coming, but what they wanted more than anything was a hug and perhaps a little play time with the team members.

Sarah Morales, 6-years-old, from the town of Lazaro Cardenas in the Chiapas region of Mexico peers into her new binoculars that she received in her shoebox after the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes distribution at the local school ground during the Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child (OCC) Mission Trip to Chiapas, Mexico

As Gary Paukert, a Calgary geophysicist, played baseball with the boys, the girls prepared for the evening gift opening. The little girls were showered and dressed in their best Sunday clothes.

The older orphans made sure the children were organized into age groups for a smooth distribution.
Mama Liz began the gift-giving by calling the names of each orphan.

"Juan Carlos Lopez Cordoba, Nicanor Sanches Gomez, Edgar Borges Solis," she said. Each name was followed by group applause and a cheer, as if the child were taking home an Olympic gold medal.

But to these kids, the boxes packed in hundreds of thousands of homes around Canada are better than any Olympic medal.

The boxes show them that perfect strangers care and that someone far away wanted to make sure their Christmas was special.

Distribution of shoe boxes in the town Francisco Sarabia, Chiapas Region, Mexico.

If their own parents had turned their backs, the people who packed the boxes had done the opposite. They had opened their hearts and their wallets to help innocent children in a place where poverty is great, but heartache is much, much worse.

Gloria's smile that day hid a story of rejection and sadness.

According to Mama Liz, both Gloria and Louis came to the orphanage with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the emotional and physical scars to prove a life not worthy of a seven-year-old.

"They were just terrified," Mama Liz said through interpreter Lily Di Gregorio. "They wouldn't let people near them. I had to give them confidence."

Four years later, the two have adjusted to a regimented life of boarding with 70 other kids in one building.
As the time to open gifts grew closer, Gloria couldn't bear not knowing what was in the neatly wrapped box. She quietly unlatched both elastic bands, watching Mama Liz from the corner of her eye. A look of great satisfaction came over her face as Gloria stuck one hand into the box, felt around and partially pulled out a Barbie doll.

She looked around, debating hard on whether to just blow her cover, scream and face the possible wrath of Mama Liz, or just as quietly as before close the edge of the box and stuff the blonde plastic doll inside. Back Barbie went inside the box, but Gloria's smile got even bigger.

Louis's self-control stayed intact. He watched Gloria's hijinks without even as much as a move toward his box.
The time had come. And so did the countdown.

Though lucky to have received a Christmas shoebox, an unidentified young boy from the village of Lazaro Cardenas in the region of Chiapas in Mexico, looks out at children behind a chainlink fence who still haven't recieved their showboxes.

Uno, Dos, Tres.

The sound of ripping paper and children squealing with delight took over the room.

Little girls ran from table to table, showing their friends what the Canadians had sent them. Toys, candy, personal letters and pictures of their Canadian families were shared around the orphanage.

The orphanage distribution was just one of four stops the Canadian team would make during their week-long mission to Chiapas.

More than 1,000 indigenous children received boxes in the town of San Cayetano.

The town itself has been in the centre of heated gun battles between Zapatista rebels and government soldiers for several years.

Just a few kilometres from San Cayetano is the Zapatista compound where locals say Subcommander Marcos lives for the better part of the year.

The townspeople have never integrated into Mexican culture and speak a completely different dialect called Tzotzil.

"The people here are very resentful and bitter toward the Zapatistas," said local Pastor Guadalupe Vivar Paz. "They were deceived by the Zapatistas. (They) made promises they didn't keep."

Children from the village of Lazaro Cardenas in the region of Chiapas, Mexico, look through the locked gate of a schoolyard, as their friends receive shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child. Due to religious beliefs, these childrens parents did not permit them to recieve any shoeboxes.

For the children of San Cayetano, the years of fighting have taken their toll. And the arrival of the Canadian team brought the villagers together for the first time in years.

Hundreds of kilometres from San Cayetano lies the small town of Lazaro Cardenas, which proved a source of great frustration for the Canadian team. More than 400 shoeboxes were given to the children in the town, which suffers from mass poverty and disease.

Many of the town's parents would not let their kids take the boxes. The sight of hundreds of underprivileged kids looking sadly at hundreds of others receiving gifts was hard for everyone involved.

For one of the lucky ones, little Sarah Morales, 6, the gifts inside the brightly wrapped box were almost as great as the box itself.

"It think it's just beautiful. Thank you for all the presents and gifts," said Sarah's mother, Carmen Morales, in Spanish. "(Sarah's) never had a gift before."

Inside Sarah's box: a pair of mittens, Crayola crayons, a pair of binoculars and a Beanie Baby.

Teenager Maria DelCarman lives with her parents in the town of San Francisco Sarabia. Several members of her family live in a tiny sod hut near the town's centre. They harvest tobacco to survive.

DelCarman, a quiet, tall, pretty girl with big brown eyes, was almost beyond words after opening her shoebox at the local school with almost 500 other children from age two to 14.

"This Christmas is very special for me because this is the first time I've received a present," she said through interpreter Xochitl Iturbe. "I like it very much. They are wonderful gifts. I never get anything for Christmas."

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Copyright © 2000, Photographer Mikael Kjellström, All rights reserved