MORGANTOWN — The toothpaste was so good, Jaki Steward Hernandez ate every bit of it.
“It had a sweet taste to it,” she told the congregants of Sabraton Baptist Church Sunday morning. “I just thought it was this delicious American candy.”
If she didn’t quite know what the make of the toothpaste, the shoebox it came in was even more of a revelation.
While she didn’t know candy from toothpaste, the-then 5-year-old was more than familiar with toothbrushes.
Hernandez had to share one with 10 other girls in that orphanage in Guatemala.
This box, wrapped up like a gift just for her, contained her very own toothbrush.
It also held pencils and notebooks for school, a stuffed animal toy for hugging and other essentials.
Counting Hernandez, there were at least 70 children unmoored from real family in the orphanage.
Her mother dropped her off when she was a baby. “She was young and just couldn’t care for me,” she said.
The orphanage is in San Jacinto: A remote city of crumbling Roman Catholic parishes in Chiquimula region of the Central American country that borders Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
Missionaries couldn’t always make it to the San Jacinto, which is more than 1,000 miles east of Guatemala City.
But those cheerfully wrapped shoeboxes with their treasures within always did.
And that’s why Hernandez was in the tiny church on Sabraton Avenue this day. A couple of years after she sampled that toothpaste she thought was a treat, she was adopted by an American family.
‘No one had ever given me a gift before’
Now 22 and married, she grew up in Maryland.
Today, when she isn’t working as a nanny and at a greenhouse in Easton, on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, she travels the country on behalf of Operation Christmas Child, the outreach organization responsible for the shoebox that changed everything.
“No one had ever given me a gift before,” she said.
“A stranger who didn’t know me had taken the time to pack this box with what I really needed.”
What she more than needed, she said, was a sense that someone in the world cared about her.
What Operation Christmas Child needs, she said, is shoeboxes — and volunteers to fill them and pack them.
Since 1993, the year Operation Christmas Child was founded in rural Boone, N.C., nearly 160 million boxes have been delivered to children in 60 countries and territories.
Last year, the organization sent 8 million boxes out into the world.
Containers that once held weekend Chuck Taylors, or job-interview Oxfords, or bridesmaid heels are filled with all those above-mentioned essentials National Collection Week this year is Nov. 12-19, and Ronda Dalton, who coordinates the effort from Monongalia, Marion and Preston counties, said one doesn’t need
a church affiliation to take part.
Call 304-282-4020 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Thinking inside the box
Meanwhile, Hernandez didn’t need information — it was in her heart all along.
In the U.S., she fell in quickly with what she calls her “loving American family.”
She quickly learned Eng-lish and developed a kid-fondness for spaghetti and chicken tenders.
She got teased (good-naturedly) for wearing heavy coats in 50 degrees.
And she had a shoebox epiphany.
As a teenager, her church became involved with Operation Children Child. One day, she was packing a box, when her memories stacked the sanctuary.
“It was a light bulb moment,” she remembered. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I got one of these boxes.’ ”
Oh, and the toothpaste? Turns out she wasn’t the only kid who thought it was candy.
“That’s why we pack dental floss now.”
Follow The Dominion Post on Twitter@DominionPostWV. Email Jim Bissett: email@example.com.