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Nicaraguan trip is lesson for children

BY PJ HELLER | NICARAGUA | December 23, 1998

This holiday season, Katie Stoker, Sarah Gauche, Veronica Pomeroy and

Alicia Turner aren't so concerned about what's under the Christmas tree.

They'll be thinking instead about other children who have so much less.

"I can't be unthankful anymore," says 12-year-old Katie Stoker of

Huntington Beach, Calif.

"I'll be thinking about how much we have in America and how truly thankful

we should be," adds 11-year-old Alicia Turner of Boiling Springs, N.C.

"I've already started to think more about what I have," chimed in

13-year-old Sarah Gauche of Burnsville, MN.

For 12-year-old Veronica Pomeroy of Calabasas, Calif., that includes being

thankful that she has "a nice place to live and sleep."

Prompting their Christmas season introspection is their recent trip to

Nicaragua, where they tried to bring a little holiday cheer to children in

the poverty-stricken, war-torn and now hurricane-devastated country. The

country was selected for the gift boxes before Hurricane Mitch ravaged much

of Central America.

Their trip to Managua in early December was part of Operation Christmas

Child, sponsored by Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief

organization based in Boone, N.C. The organization is headed by Franklin

Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

The four U.S. children represented U.S. children who packed shoe boxes with

toys and gifts for their counterparts in Nicaragua. More than 2 million

such shoe boxes were distributed this year to underprivileged children in

50 countries.

Since its inception in 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered more

than 3.5 million Christmas gifts to children worldwide.

"It was an eye-opening experience," said a Samaritan's Purse spokesman who

accompanied the four girls to Nicaragua Dec. 7-9. "It was a life-changing

experience."

Gauche, Stoker, Pomeroy and Turner, who traveled to Nicaragua each

accompanied by a parent, agreed that the trip had moved them deeply and was

an experience they will never forget.

"There was a lot of poverty down there and a lot of people had nothing,"

Hauche said. "When we were able to give them the boxes, they were just so

overwhelmed, so overjoyed. They just completely loved them.

"It was a lot of fun to see those big brown eyes and those big smiles when

they received them," she said. "It really made me think about how much we

as Americans have and how little they have and how we can share with them

and help them.

"It was a big reality check, too," she added. "These kids are so thankful

for what they get."

Despite the language barriers (the U.S. children had translators with them

to help them communicate) and some odd stares from the Nicaraguan

youngsters who sometimes weren't sure what the items in the box were, it

wasn't long before everyone was getting in the holiday spirit.

The boxes contained items such as markers, crayons, paper, balls, dolls,

stuffed animals, hygiene items and sunglasses.

"They just loved the sunglasses to death," Stoker reported.

Gift givers decide whether their box should be for a boy or girl and the

recipient's age category: 2-4, 5-9 or 10-14. The boxes are then brought to

one of more than 100 collection centers in the U.S. From there, they go to

three processing centers, where the boxes are spot checked and filled to

the top with items donated by corporate sponsors.

"My favorite part of the trip was when I gave boxes out to girls at a

refugee camp," Stoker recalled. "They kissed me on the cheek. I thought

that was really cute."

Turner showed the children how to use the gifts of yo-yos and play a

harmonica.

"I thought it was very very sad," she said of the conditions in which the

children were living.

"We could see how lucky we really are," added Pomeroy, who was making her

second trip in as many years with Operation Christmas Child. Last year, she

traveled to Mexico City to distribute the gift-filled boxes.

This year, the youngster collected some 1,400 boxes from friends,

neighbors, classmates and people at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which

she and her family attend.

"It's just a fun project for everyone," she said.

Several of the youngsters said they would like to be envoys for the program

again next year.

"I would love to go again," Hauche said. "It's a really fun experience to

sit down with them, talk to them or give them a special smile. They're just

wowed by it."

One special memory she said she brought back with her was of a little girl,

about 5 years old, who she met in the hospital.

"She got a Barbie doll in her box," Hauche said. "She told me that this was

her dream come true, that she always wanted a doll like that. It was just

so much fun to be able to open it up, get it out and watch her clutch it

right up next to her and just love it.

"It's definitely life-changing," she said of the experience. "And it makes

you thank God for all you have and thank God for being able to minister to

these people through the shoe boxes."

"It's something I'll never forget," Stoker said. "Thinking about them makes

Christmas different. You can never be unthankful for anything when you know

they have nothing."


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