The shoebox charity that changed lives


Staff reporter

A GROUP of friends who first brought Christmas joy to Romanian orphans 20 years ago marked the milestone by organising a meeting with ‘their man in Romania’ who was the one that made it all possible.

In December, 1990 a convoy of trucks, driven by local volunteers, left Wrexham Guildhall laden with medical supplies and shoebox presents for the deprived children living in orphanages in the post Ceausescu era.

It was the start of Operation Christmas Child (OCC) that evolved into Samaritan’s Purse.

Many of those pioneering volunteers have just been reunited for a special evening of celebration at the home of OCC founder Dave Cooke, and reminiscences flowed as memories of those early days were recalled.

Among those present were Adrian Jarvis, Paul Cooke, Alun Jones, Clive Coleclough, John Thirsk, Geoff Owens, Dave Cooke, Phil Hughes, Steve Phennah, John Kight, Stuart Lewis and Jeff Peet.

Also present was the guest of honour, Liviu Balas of Ecce Homo, Romania, OCC’s link, guide and mentor in the Romania of the early 1990s. Meaning ‘Behold the Man’, the charity aims to bring fresh hope and purpose to deprived children in Romania.

The former boxer, opera singer and teacher spoke emotionally about those early days, and the dreams he had – and still has – for the future of his country.

He said: “I still remember the faces, and what you did on that first convoy made many of my dreams come true. Your first trip, and the subsequent trips, were not in vain. Also we are now celebrating 20 years of Ecce Homo.

“God is the one who brings those moments in our life, and Operation Christmas Child was a wonderful key in our hearts.

“One of our aims was to stage Christian festivals in seven to 10 towns last Christmas, but we ended with festivals in 66 towns! God bless you all.”

Volunteer, Geoff Owens spoke of the time, quite recently, when he came face to face with a young former orphan girl from Romania in Aberystwyth.

He said: “We were at a conference when this young lady approached me and said she recognised me from that first trip when I handed her a shoebox.

She also said it was because our gifts from Wrexham had been sent with such love, that she decided to become a Christian.”

Another volunteer who travelled in 1990 was Alun Jones, an ex-teacher who drove one of the lorries along with Adrian Jarvis, delivering medical supplies from Johnsons, and food and shoeboxes for the children.

He said: “At first the children did not realise what to do with the gifts inside the shoeboxes, but they got the idea pretty quickly.

“It was a wonderful experience, although in many ways it was something like I imagined it must have been in a major war. We were going into the unknown, and of course we were at first very much on edge.

“It was a real eye-opener for all of us, visiting the orphanages, seeing the conditions, and smelling the smells! However, it was well worth the effort of going there, and the buzz of giving out the shoeboxes from the kids back home was just immense.

“What the orphan children wanted most of all was attention and love, and we shed many a tear as we did our best to provide it.”

Operation Christmas Child was set up in 1990 after Dave Cooke, a Chester-born man now living in Rhosrobin, Wrexham, felt deeply moved by the disturbing television pictures from Romania in the post-Ceausescu regime.

Dave, along with his brother Paul, John Roberts and Dai Hughes, decided to deliver a small amount of aid to that stricken land, but the idea captured the hearts of local people in Wrexham, Chester and north east Wales.

Instead of taking one truck full of aid they finished up with nine vehicles, leaving from Wrexham Guildhall in front of hundreds of flag-waving cheering well-wishers.

The town’s achievement of raising a staggering £600,000 in cash and aid in just seven weeks, to help the Romanian orphans, was summed up in the simple message: ‘Well done, wonderful Wrexham’.

Since those early pioneering days OCC has delivered all-year-round cheer to every part of eastern Europe and other deprived areas of the world, and for the past decade and a half they have come under the umbrella of Samaritan’s Purse.

In a phrase, an idea which began as fairly local has since become first nationwide and now truly international – and that idea is set to continue.

The concept which really took off was the shoebox appeal, in which people across the UK and Ireland are asked to fill shoeboxes with gifts, which are taken to suffering children all over the world in time for Christmas.

Dave Cooke has now left OCC to set up Teams4U, another charity which helps deprived children, but his legacy and his message still live on.

Samaritan’s Purse International (UK) is based at Victoria House, Victoria Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex, IG9 5EX.

They can be contacted by phone on 020 8559 2044 or via the website

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