Wednesday, June 05, 2013

OCC Trip Redux (or, Longest Post EVER)

Laundry is done, luggage has been put away, and I've even started some new sewing projects, so I guess it's time to try to put something in writing about my experience in Costa Rica last week.

I arrived in San Jose in the evening of May 25. I had met the 22 other teams members at the airport in Houston. The funny thing about first impressions is that they can be absolutely dead on, and occasionally terribly wrong. I had both experiences among the people I met and spent the week with. I was surprised at our team dynamic - there were 4 women around my age, and everyone else I would guess was 40+. It turned out to be a pretty good team though, and I did connect with some people I would not have normally gravitated to had the dynamic been any different than that. 

I am trying to weigh the best way to write about my week - by day or event or thoughts about what I saw, so forgive me if this post is rambling and out of order! It might switch around as I go. 

Just to review, I was on an Operation Christmas Child (OCC) Ambassador Team. OCC is a program run by Samaritan's Purse (SP). SP partners with various missionaries and mission organizations the world over to assist with building projects, distribute OCC boxes, and much more. In San Jose, SP has partnered with a non-profit called Moviendo Esperanzas (roughly translated as "Hope Peddlers" in English). ME are the people who are actually in the communities, facilitating teacher training for Bible teaching, organizing building projects and OCC distributions, among a host of other things.

Box Distribution

We did 4 shoe box distributions over the week. The first was at a small Baptist Church in Heredia (a suburb of San Jose, I am given to understand!). There were about 50 kids there I think. Before the distribution, we played in the church with the kids. We were told before hand that we could bring stickers, colouring books, skipping ropes, face paint, nail polish, bubbles etc to use with the kids we'd be hanging out with. It was pure chaos, as I am sure you can imagine!

Most of the distributions followed this format. Next came a short gospel message and altar call/prayer. I do see the reason for this, but something about it comes across as "We have presents for you, but first accept Jesus into your heart." Doesn't sit quite right with me. But the box is merely a tool, so I like to hope and think and pray that the learning and life change comes later, after the box!

Anyway, after that the boxes are distributed. The kids would already be divided by gender and age groups, and we'd take the boxes out to the kids. They were also told not to open their present right away, but wait until everyone had one, then they'd hold them up over their heads and on the count of three would open. Talk about patience! Every single kid at every distribution waited! Can you imagine what would happen if something like this took place in Canadian churches and schools? Not that!

We also did a distribution at 2 orphanages and a school.

The first orphanage was a place where a woman (Melba) and her husband currently had 42 kids in their care! Between their own 6 kids, who are now grown up, and now, they had also taken in 95 others! That's 143 children. Melba's home wasn't really an orphanage in the traditional sense in that they actually adopt the kids that come to them, and all of the kids have had some rough lives. She told us some stories of her children and they were heartbreaking - stories about neglect, abuse, abandonment. This woman was incredible. I am sure you can imagine the chaos & busyness (and laundry) that 42 kids would bring, yet she was just a peaceful presence in the midst of it all. Nothing fazed her. We were all sitting in her living room listening to her testimony, and occasionally one of the kids would come in and need or want something, or were just curious about us. They knew we were there to play with them and then presents were coming. At one point someone came in and told us the kids were outside having a funeral for a dead bird they found! I loved that. So typically kids.

Melba's house was full of love and joy. When the kids opened their boxes, every single one of them was holding something up and saying "Mama! Look!"

In a stark contrast to Melba's house, we also went to a Catholic girls orphanage, run by nuns. Unlike Melba's, this one gets some government funding as it's Catholic. The girls here were placed there by social services, usually for 6 months to a year, after which they would hopefully be put in foster care, or go back to their homes, if the risk at home was gone.

I actually liked this distribution quite a bit, as there were fewer kids (only 15), and we could actually play with them more one on one than at the other distributions. As these kids were under nun-supervision, they were incredibly well behaved, but not overly happy. The lack of parental love was so obvious here, especially after being at Melba's the day before.

We weren't allowed to take photos at the Catholic orphanage, but some of the girls actually attended the school we distributed at a couple days later, so that was cool to see them again. They of course saw us before we saw them in the crowd. This is Kari - I painted her nails and made balloon animals with her at the orphanage, and even managed to have a short conversation with her with the help of a translator. I liked her.

The OCC policy is one child, one box, one time, so the girls that had gotten boxes earlier could not get another at the school. I hated this fact. Because of that, the 6 or 7 girls were plucked out of the school crowd and it was suggested by the ME people that they help hand out boxes. Excuse me, but what kid wants to do that? I mean, school friends would probably know you live at an orphanage, which is likely something that at 8 or 10 years old, you aren't shouting from the rooftops, but then to be singled out in front of your peers and NOT included in what they are doing. Ugh.

Luckily, some of the team members had bubbles and skipping ropes with them, so they went and played with these girls and gave them those toys. Doesn't really take away the sting of the situation though.

At the school we distributed around 600 boxes. The kids came in shifts by age to get their boxes. Littles first. As there were so many kids, we didn't play before hand, but a clown had been hired to do some entertaining. Pretty sure he made fun of us Canadians as the majority of us had no idea what he was saying!

Dad - Rough Riders gear showed up in Costa Rica on the last day!

And here is terribly shaky video of the kids opening their boxes. I apologize for the quality (and lack of skill), but it does capture the spirit of excitement of a distribution event!

The Greatest Journey

With every box is a booklet called "The Greatest Journey" (which you can look at here if you so desire), which is discipleship curriculum that has lessons on creation, the fall of man, birth of Jesus, Crucifixion of Jesus, and the Gospel message.

Churches and schools use this curriculum, and it encourages kids to tell their parents, siblings and friends about Jesus. In fact, the School officials in San Jose (and maybe for the whole country? - I am not clear on that) have been presented with this material, and they want it to be in all the schools! That is quite a miracle, as it's not exactly Catholic in nature. The problem is that there are not enough people to lead teacher training for the program.

We attended a Greatest Journey graduation as well. It was in a rough neighborhood at a tiny church, where the pastor actually just preaches outside on a hill. They use a neighboring house as their "Sunday school" classroom. And by house I mean a room maybe 12' wide by 20' long.

The kids that had finished The Greatest Journey got a certificate and a New Testament (and candy!). We didn't stay long at the graduation, as we were a group of white people in a darkening neighborhood that was known for crime, drugs and prostitution. Even heard some gunshots while there.

Moviendo Esperanzas

One afternoon we went to the ME office. This was nothing special in the way of office space, but we did see where they store all the shoe boxes waiting to be distributed!

Four shipping containers and 3 semi trailers full of boxes! I found that quite overwhelming.

Those shipping containers and semi trailers are full of OCC boxes

ME also does wheelchair clinics & distributions for kids and adults. (We were involved with one one morning). The wheelchairs are given to those who have crappy old chairs, or if they've grown out of the one they have, and to people who have never had one. At the wheelchair clinic we were at, there was one girl who was around 12 and had Cerebral Palsy. She had never had a wheelchair before, but was fitted for one that day. Her family was overwhelmed.

The wheelchairs are refurbished ones, and I think are donated by the US Navy, in conjunction with Hope Haven, a US non-profit. ME had around 80 wheelchairs waiting under a tarp for future clinics because there wasn't enough warehouse space anywhere else on the property!

Henry - Our Bus Driver

We had a bus and driver for the week. His name was Henry. I don't know how he got us anywhere since there are no street signs or addresses in San Jose. One of the translators told us you just memorize the cities, but I cannot see how anyone would be able to do that. It's like a maze. One of the team members was staying another week at a friends house, and the slip of paper she had to show a taxi driver basically said "My house is near the stadium. It's brown with white columns." (I hope it actually had a bit more detail than that!)

Anyway, Henry was great. He was hired to drive us around, and was in no way affiliated with SP or ME. Over the course of the week, his story came out. He'd been through a troubled marriage and is now divorced with two teenage kids. We went to a church service on Sunday night, which we found out later was unlike anything he'd ever heard, and then he would usually sit in on our distributions and really everything else we did.

What was cool was that by the end of the week, he too was raising his hand when the distribution leader would ask the crowd who has Jesus in their heart. I think we saw a change in Henry over the week, and I hope that our group and the things he experienced with us made a lasting impression on him.

Other Fun Stuff

I experienced my first ever earthquake while in San Jose. It happened very early the morning of May 27, around 3:30, and lasted 2 minutes. I woke up and my bed was shaking pretty hard. My train of thought went like this: "Is this an earthquake? Yep, I think so. I'll just stay here in bed and see what happens." And then it was over. We learned later that it was in Panama near the CR border, and had a magnitude of 6.4. (But I just looked it up and says it was only 5.7, so who knows).

Hotel Gardens - absolutely gorgeous! It was a treat to walk through these grounds everyday to our group meeting room!

Our last day, we got to do some tourist type stuff, and went to Doka Estate, a coffee plantation, and also to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which was a nature park and wildlife area. I really enjoyed both of these things (and the coffee was SO GOOD! I'm not even a coffee drinker and thought so). It was neat to walk around at the waterfall gardens and see some jungle. The variety of plants & animals in Costa Rica is amazing.

Machines that process coffee beans

Unroasted on the bottom, roasted on top

Hey look, I'm at a coffee plantation

Me & my roommate, Daphne

 Things to Include in your Box Next Year

One fun part of seeing a million shoe boxes opened at once was getting to see what people packed. One tip for you is don't include a Christmas card. It makes no sense 6 months later. A card or letter is great, but don't make it so theme-y. We came across lots of letters, and a few included addresses from the people who packed the box. This little girl got a box from a family in Gibsons who included their address. I'm going to send them a letter and include this photo. I think it'd be cool to see who your box ended up with and where it went in the world!

Some other ideas:
  • A bag or small back pack. Some had these great drawstring backpacks, which are just like an envelop of fabric and cinch closed at the top. They fold up easily and fit into a box no problem.
  • Calculators. The older kids especially liked them.
  • A white t-shirt. All the kids we saw that were in school or headed to school wore uniforms. I didn't see this first hand, but the possibility was mentioned to me that if kids didn't have a white shirt, they couldn't attend school.
  • Water bottle - fill it with smaller items!
  • Craft kits. I would have loved this as a kid. I saw some necklace beading kits which I thought were especially great.  
  • Soap is overrated. Put in more toys and less soap. And for the love, only put in one toothbrush. We saw some boxes that had like 4 bars of soap and 3 toothbrushes. No kid wants a box full of hygiene items. 
  • Musical instruments. The kids loved harmonicas and recorders. Especially the boys! 

Overall, it was a positive experience, if slightly frustrating at times. There are so many unknowns in travelling with strangers, into a world completely different than your own. Like I said the other day, it was interesting and eye opening, but I don't think it was completely life-changing for me, and I wouldn't say that I absolutely loved it. Would I do it again? No, I don't think I would. I went in order to see how things worked on the other end of Operation Christmas Child, something I have always wanted to do, and I did.

Mission accomplished.


  1. I just love this Erica. Fantastic recap post! Those pics of the kids opening their boxes just melt my heart. I love it that you're going to send the Gibson's a letter! How cool is that!! And earthquakes-- oh my. Can't wait to see you and hear more about your trip!

  2. Anonymous6:05 AM

    Very cool Erica. Great post telling us about your OCC experience. And thanks for the tips on what, or not, to include in future OCC boxes. All I can say about Melba is WOW. She is truly amazing.
    love, mom

  3. Hillary7:30 AM

    Sounds like a honest reflection of your time. I enjoyed reading it...and really wished I could of had some coffee too!