Operation Christmas Child: Tongsiew’s Story


Operation Christmas Child is run by an organisation called Samaritan’s Purse.  The idea is simple, but powerful: fill a shoe box with things for a child in a developing country who is living in poverty. Things to be placed in the shoe box are specified (items are usually necessities, such as toothbrushes, soap, clothing and school stationery, plus some “fun” items such as a soft toy, colouring book, crayons or a ball). The charity also makes it very clear which things are NOT to be included (“war” toys; religious or political material; battery operated items, toothpaste, plastacine, food or any other perishable item).

OCC LabelThe Operation Christmas Child Logo

The idea for Operation Christmas Child began in 1990 in the aftermath of the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. David and Jill Cooke, from Wrexham, Wales, in the UK, became concerned with the plight of the countless Romanian orphans whose lives had fallen into tumult following the tremendous societal and political changes in their country. That Christmas, the Cookes organized a convoy of nine trucks and delivered medical supplies, clothing, food and Christmas gifts to needy children in Romania. In 1993, Samaritan’s Purse ‘adopted’ the program and began supporting children across the globe.” http://www.theleafchronicle.com/story/news/local/clarksville/2014/09/05/operation-christmas-child-assists-children-across-globe/15153151/

The first ever convoy by Operation Christmas Child in 1990, leaving Wrexham to deliver aid to children in Romanian orphanages.The first ever convoy by Operation Christmas Child in 1990, leaving Wrexham to deliver aid to children in Romanian orphanages.

  A shoe box recipient 1990.

Children who receive Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes live in the very poorest areas of the world and the majority will only ever receive one shoe box. For many, due to the poverty in which they live, it is the only gift they will receive in their lives. Receiving the shoe boxes, then, can be quite overwhelming for some children. The communities these children live in are often isolated and the idea that someone in another country far away has cared enough to pack an individual gift for a child they do not know and will probably never meet can be very moving for both the children and their parents. In some places, receiving basics such as exercise books and pens can mean the difference between going to school and not being permitted to go (as stationery is a requirement of attendance, one which many parents in these areas are unable to meet).

Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian organisation, but the shoe boxes are distributed to children regardless of their spiritual beliefs or background.

“Each shoe box is an unconditional gift, given to a child with nothing asked for, or expected in return; no pledges, no obligation to go to church or attend classes; ‘no strings attached’.” http://www.samaritans-purse.org.uk/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child/

The shoeboxes can be pre-printed ones, provided by the charity, or just ordinary shoe boxes decorated by the givers.


Children receiving Shoe Boxes around the World

In these very poor communities, tangible development is definitely the way forward. Development through local projects which enable people to generate their own on-going, self-sustaining income, empowering independence and perpetuating sustainability, is a must. We often hear quoted the famous Chinese proverb: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what does “development” mean to a child? In the eyes of a child, receiving a gift for the first time in their life is an immediate and personal message that they are remembered and loved by their global family, that they count, that they are not isolated or forgotten. Perhaps then, the Chinese proverb should be rephrased: “If you give someone a fish you feed them just for a day, but you nurture their soul by your loving action and fill them with hope which leads to them to pursuing their own means of fishing and giving more fish to others”.

Children receiving Shoe Boxes around the World

I have always loved the idea of “paying it forwards”: of showing gratitude for help we have received by in turn helping and empowering others. Recently I spoke with Mrs. Tongsiew Ooi, a lady who is passionate about Operation Christmas Child and about “paying forward” the kindness that was shown to her when she was a child.

Tongsiew Ooi was born in Penang Island, Malaysia in 1960. Her mother tongue (and cultural heritage) is Chinese, but she was also raised speaking Malay and English. In 1979 she came to Christchurch, New Zealand, to study on a scholarship at Christchurch Girls’ High School for her 7th form (year 13) final school year. In 1983, she graduated with a degree in computer science from Canterbury University, before returning to Malaysia to work as an IT Manager. She then met her husband and they married and had three sons (all now adults). Tongsiew and her family returned to New Zealand in 2004: her sons attended NZ high schools and university. “I’m now a Homestay Mum for International Students,” Tongsiew says. She is also very much involved with her church and community and in promoting Operation Christmas Child.

When recalling her childhood, Tongsiew says, “We didn’t have a lot. There were very few toys and if we did get something, like a set of plastic farm animals, all the kids in the area would come over to see it and crowd round to have a turn playing with it. We would dress up to have photographs taken—luckily my family had friends who photographed us for free and my Mum was great at sewing and took pride in making us look tidy. But at times there was very little.”

Tongsiew was the third daughter in her family. “We were living with my grandparents, who resented that we were not boys. Girls were not as highly regarded as boys in Chinese culture. I remember hearing my grandparents call us ‘she devils’. I was the youngest of the three girls and, of course, they had hoped I might be the long awaited grandson.I was a large baby and a difficult, breech birth. My poor mother was told that she had to ‘keep trying’ to ‘get a boy’ after I was born. To make matters worse, unlike my two older sisters, I completely refused to breastfeed. In the end, my parents accepted that, to keep me alive, they would have to buy powdered milk, which was very expensive in comparison to the local salary (the milk was imported all the way from New Zealand!). My parents had to go without food and make other sacrifices in order to pay for my baby formula. My Mum really loved us and did her best for us and didn’t care whether we were boys or girls. The cultural pressure to have a boy was tough on her.”

Baby Tongsiew ArtyBaby Tongsiew playing with a bamboo chair

Tongsiew’s parents later had two more children, both boys. When she was about four or five years old, Tongsiew and her sisters received a box from a Christian outreach programme. It was not an Operation Christmas Child shoe box, but the principle was the same. “Our family were Buddhist and they didn’t know us at all. The boxes contained things which might not mean a lot to kids in richer countries, like coloured pencils, erasers and colouring books. To us they were amazing treasures. My parents were moved as well, these perfect strangers had given us a gift without expecting anything in return. We were asked whether we would like to come along to their Sunday School and my Mum, despite being Buddhist, had no problem with that. (Looking back, I think part of the attraction was the idea of having us out from under her feet for a couple of hours every Sunday morning!). I remember being impressed by the love and respect shown for us: for the first time my sisters and I felt as though we were very precious and important. These people went to a lot of trouble to provide us with such things as costumes for plays and we enjoyed our time there. Eventually, however, the church had a falling out with my parents when they dressed us up as lambs for a Christmas play. In Asian culture, dressing a person as an animal is very much frowned upon.   Our Sunday School teachers were other Malaysians: Chinese and Indian people, so they should have been aware of that. Anyway, my Mum and Dad said we weren’t allowed to go anymore.”

TS & Siblings 1960s arty

Tongsiew (right end) and siblings as children.

With regards to the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes, Tongsiew says you need to see things as a child would see them. “The development projects which provide such things as chickens and pigs are great and very necessary: they help the nutrition of the whole community, including the children, and enable people to be self-sustaining. Similarly, digging a well will obviously improve the lives of everyone in the village. At a personal level, however, the thing which stayed with me was the individual gifts of basic things which our parents could not afford. To me it meant someone had unconditional love for me: that each child counted and was special: it’s important to feel that when you’re a kid running around in a poor village. It’s important if you’re a girl in a culture where boys are more highly valued. It gives you dignity and a sense of self-worth. That’s why I love Operation Christmas Child. It touches each child individually and unconditionally.”

Tongsiew aged about 7Tongsiew Modern arty

                             Left:  Tongsiew as a child.                     Right:  A recent picture of Mrs. Tongsiew Ooi

Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes are collected in late October. To find out further information about Operation Christmas Child in your area, go to www.samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child

Many thanks to Mrs. Tongsiew Ooi, who kindly shared her story.  🙂


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