EVERY year, schools and churches around the Borough gather up their Christmas shoeboxes to send to children around the world.
Now a group of local volunteers from Coleraine and Limavady hav travelled to Belarus to see how the showboxes make a real difference.
Hazel Clarke, Mary Ferguson, Audrey Campbell, Mandy Gault, Marian O’Connor and Sharon Jack have just returned from their trip as part of a group from Northern Ireland who travelled together from Belfast to Minsk.
“Their sense of humour, patience and care enabled us to face the daunting duties of each day with enthusiasm and determination,” said Sharon.
“Thoughts of political instability and economic hardship, thankfully, were the last things on the minds of the children we were so privileged to meet during our trip. Julia, a talented teenager who had won a special prize for her ability in English, lovingly replaced each item in her shoebox after she had inspected all her gifts.
“It was a strangely surreal and humbling experience to be applauded by an entire school upon entering their assembly hall but such is the importance of the shoebox distribution in their lives. As the main religion in Belarus is Eastern Orthodoxy, Christmas is celebrated in January and we were the guests of honour at each school we visited, where a concert or nativity play was performed.
“Although the schools we visited may not have the latest facilities common to our own establishments, we were most impressed, not only by the behaviour of the pupils, but by the care and dedication of the teaching staff.
“Upon discussion of the meagre contents of her library of English books, one principal asked if we could send more books in English as they have so few and the copies they have are old and in poor condition. We would, therefore, urge you to include books in English in your shoeboxes.
“At each school the children only opened their boxes once the concert was over and every child had received a box. They politely said “thank you” in perfect English and patiently waited until the teacher indicated they could open them. Then the fun began. One little boy in a white hat ran from the back of the classroom to the front whooping with delight; another boy in a striped shirt, his eyes brimming with emotion, kept repeating “thank you”; and a fair-haired girl in a red jumper found a Christmas card from Aghadowey Parish Church so that was a special moment for us.
“We also had an opportunity to visit Babushkas and Dedushkas (grandmothers and grandfathers) in hospital where they come to stay during the cold winter months. It was an honour to give out shoeboxes to these gentle old people who had been abandoned by their families.
“Children in a state-run orphanage performed a concert for us which featured only a select few of the more talented children. The majority sat on the sidelines in their, at best, second-hand clothes, many boys dressed in girls’ clothing while the “stars” performed their party pieces.
“The atmosphere of the entire place was of an institution redolent of days that we thought were long past. The order from the Director not to walk on the carpet did little to dispel our overriding sense of unease. Here the children clung to us and Marina told us they were saying, “Take me home.”
“Fortunately, our final distribution was in sharp contrast to the orphanage – a primary school in Tevli where every child had a part in the nativity play.
“As we left the warmth and conviviality of that little school, I noticed the gifts that the shepherds had left for Baby Jesus – a bottle of milk (something to eat), a teddy (something to cuddle) and a little hat (something to wear) – the essential ingredients of a shoebox,” concluded Sharon.