Ruth Garvey-Williams describes how a “beautiful” little boy, living on an old landfill site in Romania, opened his shoebox gifted from an Inishowen family and his wide eyes lit up.
He reached inside the box and picked out one of the gifts - holding it to him and hugging it like he’d been “given a million pounds.”
The gift was a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush - everyday items to both children and adults here in Inishowen. But, to this delighted little boy, they were an extraordinary and exciting special Christmas surprise.
The young boy was among a number of children Ruth met during her trip to Romania with the charity ‘Team Hope.’
The Inishowen Team Hope Christmas Shoebox Appeal was set up eight years ago by Ruth and Andrew Garvey-Williams. This year, for the first time ever, Ruth accompanied the charity as the shoeboxes stuffed with gifts made their way from Ireland to be given to young boys and girls who live among war, disease and poverty.
She spoke to the ‘Journal’ after she returned from the visit late last week and told how the gifts donated by Inishowen families brought a “great joy and colour” to the children who are living in such grim conditions.
Ruth added she was “over the moon” when she came across the Inishowen-donated boxes, which she was then able to personally gift to the children.
During the trip, Ruth and the team visited orphanages, both State-owned and private, settlements and areas in which there was terrible poverty and also gifted shoeboxes to refugee children.
She said she was “speechless” at how grateful the children were for all they received and also at the charity workers ‘on the ground’ who help and support these families all year round.
Ruth said the shoebox appeal opened the door for the charity and its team which then allows them to introduce other programmes, giving the children “hope for the future.”
She also thanked all the businesses and individuals in the peninsula for their “overwhelming” generosity and the “trojan” team of volunteers who worked so hard to ensure the boxes made their destination on time.
Ruth left her Inishowen home for Romania on December 12th and arrived back in Ireland late last week.
She told how when she arrived and saw the Inishowen boxes, she became “very, very emotional.”
Ruth said: “It was like a miracle. Each box has its own code in order to identify where it comes from. Ours was ‘DL1’ so I was over the moon when I saw them. I never thought I’d be giving out our boxes. It was just so special. I was so over the moon and it was very, very emotional. The whole team were laughing as I was just so excited.”
This year’s response in Inishowen to the appeal was the “best since the recession” with over 2,000 shoeboxes packed with gifts donated by people across the peninsula.
As well as gifting the Inishowen boxes, Ruth had also personally brought two very special boxes and a gift to Romania with her.
One of these was a shoebox from a family at Scoil Iosagain in Buncrana and this was given to a five-year old girl called Jessica, who Ruth met in one of the orphanages.
She said: “She is very, very quiet. When we gave her the box she was hugging it. She opened it and found a photo of the family who donated it. Before she even touched her gifts she went around to the other children and showed them the photo. Later on, the girls in the orphanage were heading to the house where they live. She got on the bus, grabbed the sweets and started waving them around. She was just so overwhlemed and excited.”
The second box was taken from Carndonagh Community School, whose first and second year students had taken part in the appeal.
Ruth said: “I took out this beautiful box with a gorgeous red ribbon. When we handed a box to a child we never know what their interests or likes were. But, we gave this box to a little girl called Alexandra, who was nine. She opened the box and her little face just lit up. It was full of items from the ‘Frozen’ film. She became really animated and I asked the interpreter what she was saying. She told me that Alexandra really, really loved ‘Frozen.’ So that was lovely.”
Ruth told how many of the children she met lived in desperate poverty and didn’t attend school. This was due on many occasions to the fact their parents had to go out to work and the older children took care of their younger siblings. The charity works to try and keep them in school, focusing on how education can open up doors and given them hope and dreams for the future.
Ruth said the children were “so excited” when they visited and told how of she had brought a special gift to donate to a child who really needed it.
She said: “‘The Jewel Casket’ in Buncrana gave us a huge amount of beautiful knitted items. One of these was a little Poncho in the Donegal colours. I carried it in my bag and was looking for the right person to give it to. We went to a little settlement down by the river, where people had constructed homes. There was no electricity and no running water. In one family, eight children and their mum and dad were living in the one room. I walked into the place and saw this beautiful young girl. The children all got shoeboxes but I saw that the girl was cold. I gave her the Poncho and she just looked at me with these beautiful, big eyes.”
Ruth met the little boy who was given the gift containing the toothbrush and toothpaste in an old landfill site, which had been filled in. She said she “can’t even describe” the “horrific” conditions in which the people lived. Ruth said she was “speechless” at how grateful the children were for gifts that children in this part of the world would take for granted. She added that while the children in the orphanages they visited were “fed and watered,” there was a “lack of joy.”
“The shoeboxes bring that spark of joy,” she said.
Ruth also revealed how the team themselves received a gift from some children they gave shoeboxes too.
She said: “Many of the children have severe disabilities. We went to visit a group of children in a Down Syndrome group. They receive no funding from the State and a group of friends got together to support these kids. They made us all Christmas stockings, which were all hand-sewed. I will treasure it.”
They also met with children from a refugee camp. The team was due to visit the camp but it had been hit by a chicken-pox outbreak, so the children came to them instead. They were from areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia and the children then took shoeboxes back to the other children in the camp.
Ruth said what most impressed here about her trip were the “people on the ground.” She said: “ In some ways, when we see the conditions in which these people live, the shoeboxes can seem so small. But, they give great joy and the appeal helps the local charities get into areas. They’re doing it all year around and have education and feeding programmes, homework clubs and much, much more. They have literally just set up a health clinic where people pay what they can . If they can’t pay then they get it for free. These people on the ground are the real heroes. The shoeboxes bring colour and joy to these kids who are living in such grim conditions. They are also part of a long-term strategy to help these kids.”
Ruth paid tribute to everyone who donated a shoebox or gift, stating she was “overwhelmed” by everyone’s generosity. Donegal as a whole is one of the most generous counties to the campaign and are “so supportive.”
She added: “Thank you also to our team of volunteers, who worked like trojans to ensure the shoeboxes reached their destination. It was lovely to be able to see the boxes reach the end and know the difference they made to the children.”