It's hard to imagine an American child squealing for joy upon opening a shoebox and finding a toothbrush, a pair of purple sunglasses or a couple of plastic beaded bracelets.
But Svetlana Schweiger, 18, of Richland, did.
At the time, she was 7 and living in an orphanage in the Ukraine.
The shoeboxes come from Operation Christmas Child, a project of the Christian international relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
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Each year, the relief group collects millions of boxes in North America, Australia and western Europe and sends them to children in more than 100 countries.
Svetlana and her sister Valentina, 16, know how much the shoeboxes of treasures mean to the children because two of them, many years ago, ended up in their hands.
They had been living in poverty with their family -- an alcoholic father, an indifferent mother, an older sister who was seldom home and a baby sister -- when the police removed them from the home.
"I remember that day because we had three meals. We were usually hungry. There was nothing to eat at home -- sometimes a bowl of rice," Svetlana said.
They ended up living in an orphanage in Simferopol by the Black Sea.
Svetlana vividly remembers the day the shoeboxes arrived.
"It was Christmas, but we didn't know that. We were doing some dances and skits and there was a big tree. I was a belly dancer," Svetlana said.
"And I was the littlest birch tree," Valentina said.
The director had all of the children sit in a big circle around the tree and they passed out the boxes.
"We were told to wait until everyone had theirs. Then, on the count of three, we opened them. All of us made a surprised sound and started pulling things out of the boxes," Svetlana said.
Valentina remembers getting her box but because she was 5, she can't remember what was in it. Her older sister remembers the sunglasses, the toothbrush, the drawing supplies but especially the two bracelets.
"I still have them," she said as she and her sister each held up a wrist sporting a string of orange and yellow beads strung on elastic.
"That box was the first present I'd ever had in my life," Svetlana said.
About a year and a half later, thesisters received another present -- their new parents, Mike and Kathy Schweiger of Richland -- and moved to the Tri-Cities.
The Schweigers have been filling and donating the shoeboxes for almost 20 years and, after they were adopted, the two sisters helped fill them too.
"But it wasn't until two years ago that I really remembered getting that box so many Christmases ago. That box changed my life. I realized then that someone cared," Svetlana said.
Bethel Church in Richland began participating in the project in 1994, said Tricia MacFarlan, area coordinator for Samaritan's Purse in the Tri-Cities.
"Now we have hundreds of churches, youth groups and individuals filling the boxes every year," she said.
"We buy things year round. When there's a sale, we're there. Expos and home shows are great places to gather things and often businesses will give us boxes of pens and pencils," MacFarlan said.
The Tri-Cities' annual Operation Christmas Child kickoff will be at 7 p.m. today at Columbia Community Church, 150 Gage Blvd., Richland.
The Schweiger sisters will talk about the shoebox gifts they received a decade ago and MacFarlan will discuss how to get involved and what to put in the boxes.
"We have several thousand boxes but you can really use any shoebox, even plastic ones," MacFarlan said.
If you can't attend, go to the website, www.samaritanspurse.org/occ for directions on how to fill and secure the shoeboxes. Or contact MacFarlan at 948-8792 or MacFarlanOCC@gmail.com.
The boxes will be collected Nov. 12-19 at Bethel Church, 600 Shockley Road, Richland, and several other locations in the Mid-Columbia. You'll find them listed on the Operation Christmas Child website.
Do include $7 per box to cover shipping and include a photo and note of hope to the child who will receive it.
"They treasure those photos because it shows them a real person who cares," said Valentina.
-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; email@example.com