RICHLAND -- Thousands of families in the Tri-Cities drop off gifts for the poorest of the poor every Christmas at Bethel Church in Richland.
The donations go to Operation Christmas Child, which organizers call "the world's largest Christmas project." Packing boxes to be sent to children in drought-stricken, war-torn or famished regions around the world has become part of the season's joy for many in the area.
But it means even more to five local children. The children from two families -- one in Pasco, one in Richland -- were once orphans in dire circumstances.
Back then, they received boxes from the operation. Now they send them.
Christmas in Ethiopia
A couple of years ago, Tsega Macduff, now 11, and his sisters Hiwot, now 8, and Addis, now 13, were dropping off gifts at Bethel with their adoptive father, Trevor Macduff.
As Addis saw the gift-wrapped boxes pull away in a truck, she realized she had seen this kind of gift before, at the Kidane Mehret Children's Home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, five years ago.
Addis, Tsega and Hiwot lived at that orphanage for a year before Trevor and Jessica Macduff adopted the three siblings in 2006.
On Christmas Day 2005, the children at the orphanage were called together. Gifts had arrived.
More than 100 children lived in the big building, Tsega said. The orphanage's website says that 150 live there now.
When his name was called, he stepped forward and received a gift to the cheers of the other children, Tsega said. The box from Operation Christmas Child contained a small toy car, a foam model airplane and a few practical items.
"It was very special," he said. "It was my first time getting that kind of surprise."
Addis also remembers exactly what was in the box she got that year.
"There were color crayons, brushes and a little doll," she said. "I never, ever in my life had those things."
The boxes made that Christmas stand out for these children to this day.
"I was thankful and happy," Tsega said shyly.
"I didn't know somebody actually cared about us," Addis said. "I couldn't sleep."
A world away from East Africa and a few years before, a young girl celebrated the first Christmas of her life in a Ukrainian orphanage, thanks to Operation Christmas Child.
Svetlana Schweiger, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Richland High School, lived in an orphanage in the Crimea region when she was 7 years old. Her younger sister Valentina, now 14, lived there too.
They and the other orphans had performed a special dance for the holiday and then they "all sat in a big circle under the tree," Svetlana said. "I was just so excited."
She was excited because clearly something special was in the air. But although it was Dec. 25, she didn't know what was about to happen.
"I didn't know about Christmas," Svetlana said.
She opened the box, still not knowing exactly what it all meant. Then she realized it was a present just for her. "I never had stuff to myself," she said.
More than eight years later, she not only remembers what was in the box, but she still has some of the presents. But it wasn't until last year that she realized the boxes her adoptive mother, Kathy Schweiger, put together every year were going to the same group that made her first Christmas possible.
Kids helping kids
Operation Christmas Child is organized by the Christian international relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
Each year, the relief group collects nearly 8.5 million boxes in North America, Australia and western Europe and sends them to children in more than 100 countries, said Jennifer Butler, the group's spokeswoman.
The relief group, whose main mission is to deliver life-saving aid to developing countries, war zones and disaster areas, started the Christmas operation in 1993, Butler said.
Collections at Bethel Church began the following year, said Tricia MacFarlan, area coordinator for Samaritan's Purse in the Tri-Cities.
Boxes are shipped to a collection hub in Denver, where the packages are inspected for breakable or culturally sensitive items. Barbie dolls wearing skimpy bathing suits aren't considered suitable toys for children in Iraq, for example, Butler said.
Last year, the group began offering a tracking system.
The group asks that a $7 donation to cover shipping is included with the box. If that donation is made online, the sender can print out a label with a tracking number and see where the box went.
Some local children know exactly what kind of person the gifts go to already.
"It's really fun picking stuff," Addis Macduff said. "I usually pack what girls like."