Two views of Operation Christmas Child
Adoptees get a look at both sides of Operation Christmas Child
Several years ago, a boy named Valery and his little sister, Marina, were living in an orphanage in Vladivostok, Russia, with almost nothing to call their own.
Christmas presents in brightly wrapped shoe boxes arrived one day for all the orphans, and suddenly Valery had his own coloring book, pens, and a new shirt. Marina got a package of stickers, some of which she traded with friends for other stickers, and some of which she used to decorate the single drawer holding her worldly possessions.
There were other small gifts, too it's amazing how much you can fit in a shoe box but the most important present both children got that day was the surprise of knowing that someone, somewhere, cared. They didn't know who or where, but it felt great to know that somebody cared about orphans in Russia.
Valery and Marina received gift-stuffed shoe boxes twice more at the orphanage before being adopted in 2007 by Dean and Joan Bianco of Prairie Grove. And while the Bianco family was preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together, the children happened on another great surprise.
Valery discovered his new sister, Sarah, now 19, packing and wrapping a shoe box full of small gifts. The children learned that their family is just one of thousands across the nation who fill shoe boxes annually on behalf of Operation Christmas Child, which ships them not only to orphans but to other child victims of poverty and war as well.
An arm of Samaritan's Purse, a massive Christian humanitarian agency based in North Carolina, Operation Christmas Child distributed 8 million shoe boxes last year in more than 130 nations. Among them were boxes packed by churches of all denominations from across the Chicago area.
Some were filled by the Bianco family, including Valery, now 16, and Marina, now 13, who are thrilled to be on the giving end of the project.
"It feels awesome, because I know how it felt when I was there and received it," Valery said. "I never received a gift before like that. I just felt that there's still people out there that care about me and love me."
Valery said he was used to getting candy for Christmas, never anything more.
"You don't get much stuff in the (orphanage)," Marina said. "You don't get your own stuff that you can call your own. From experience, it is really, really cool when you receive that box and you get an amazing feeling that someone in the world cares for you."
Typically the boxes are packed with toys, school supplies, hygiene items, hard candy whatever the sender thinks to purchase and OCC adds a booklet about Jesus in the child's language.
Marina said one item she especially appreciated was toothpaste.
"In the orphanage we had toothbrushes," she said, "but we ran out of toothpaste all the time."
This is National Collection Week for OCC, which means crunchtime for the 26 collection sites in the Chicago area. Valery and Marina Bianco will be right in the middle of it, joining others in their home-school group on Saturday to crate the boxes, which will be loaded Sunday onto a 24-foot truck.
Volunteers will gather at Julie Gibbs' Algonquin home, which Gibbs describes as the last relay center in the nation still located in a garage. She's expecting more than 2,000 shoe boxes to arrive this week from area churches and individuals and said the packages will be transferred onto a tractor-trailer in Grayslake on their way to points overseas.
Joan Bianco said the Christmas shoe box project means "so much" to her children.
"When you're on this end sending them out, it's not so personal," Joan said, "but then to find out that my kids got some of them, it's just amazing knowing someone personally."
For more information about the shoe box project, visit samaritanspurse.org/occ. or call Gibbs at (847) 458-2454.
Nativity exhibit: It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but the Women's Club at St. Peter Catholic Church, Geneva, wants to put us in the right frame of mind for Christmas with a hundred creches portraying the birth of Jesus.
The fourth annual Nativity Exhibition, with sets of different sizes and styles, will be displayed this weekend in the St. Peter multipurpose room, 1891 Kaneville Road. Based on last year's interest, event co-chairs Tina Trch and Marcie Hepperman are expecting 1,000 visitors or more.
Along with members of the parish, four creche collectors have been invited to exhibit their pieces.
"This year we're hoping to have at least 100 Nativity sets because the church is in the middle of its 100th year," Trch said.
The most unusual creche Trch said she's seen in the past was snipped out of Coke cans. Other memorable sets used cat or bear figures standing in for the Holy Family.
"It's just a total variety," Trch said, "and I think that's what makes it so beautiful."
After the Nativity tour, you can stay and do a little shopping at a holiday bazaar with Blest Art products from the Holy Land and items from Wheaton Religious Gift Shop.
The event is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, and 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21. There is no charge, but a freewill offering will be taken to benefit the St. Peter Community Food Pantry. For more information, call the church at (630) 232-0124.
Oil for Hanukkah: With Hanukkah coming up soon on the Jewish calendar, children at Congregation Kneseth Israel as well as anyone else who is interested can learn how olive oil was made for the lamps that were an integral part of the Hanukkah story.
Rabbi Schneur Scheiman, co-director of Camp Gan Israel, a Jewish children's camp in the Chicago area, will show children how to pit olives, squeeze them on a hand press, strain the juice, spin it on a centrifuge, and make cotton wicks for an oil-burning menorah.
"This is an ancient process with a few updates technologically," said Nancy Zimmerman, vice president of education at CKI.
The free, hands-on presentation will be at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, at the synagogue, 330 Division St., Elgin. You can also shop the Hanukkah Bazaar while you're there and pick up menorahs and candles, toys, pottery, glassware, and jewelry much of it from Israel. For more information, call CKI at (847) 741-5656.
• "In the Spirit" covers churches and synagogues in the Fox Valley area; contact email@example.com to submit information or ideas for upcoming columns.