IU senior Justin Ehlers received his first-ever Christmas gift when he was five years old in an orphanage in Ethiopia.
Ehlers lived in the orphanage from ages five through seven, after both of his parents passed away. Previously, he had never celebrated Christmas; Ethiopia is home to a variety of religions, and traditions such as New Year’s, Ramadan and tribal celebrations were more commonly practiced. But one year, the organization Operation Christmas Child brought the holiday to the orphanage. It was then that Ehlers was introduced to the spirit of the season: giving to and helping others.
Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, an international relief organization that provides local partners around the world with shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items, and school supplies. The gifts are shipped to children affected by war, poverty, famine, and other issues outside the US, as well as to those living on Native American reservations.
He said that at first, he and the others at the orphanage didn't quite grasp the concept of Christmas.
"First of all, you've got to teach us what Christmas is and make it relevant to why a bunch of boxes are there and why you're getting these gifts," he said.
He quickly realized that the gift he was given was special. Operation Christmas Child gave each child in the orphanage a shoebox with small toys, typically a bouncy ball or other trinkets, Ehlers said.
He still remembers some of the items in his box: a coloring book, stickers, Play-Doh.
Because most of the children had never received a gift like that, it was very meaningful— especially because it came from people he had never even met before.
"It's really beautiful, the message, and I was really touched—like, why are people sending these gifts? What's this all about?" he said.
Operation Christmas Child came twice during Ehlers’ stay at the orphanage.Through the organization, he learned more about the meaning of Christmas and the importance of giving to those in need. While the gifts given to him and his peers were small, Ehlers said, the intention behind them was important. He said he learned that when it comes to giving, there's more to a gift than just size or price.
"It doesn't need to be an extraordinary gift," he said. "If somebody's packing a box, even if it's a bouncy ball, if it's a coloring book, just to receive something is special. It's not about the monetary value. It's about what connected, what's behind it, and it's ultimately the love that somebody's displaying to you."
Today, Ehlers packs shoeboxes for the organization with IU's chapter of Chi Alpha, which sends out hundreds of boxes through Operation Christmas Child each year. He said that putting in the effort to make a difference, no matter how small, can be especially impactful in environments where kids are in need of extra love and kindness.
As the holiday season rolls around, Ehlers encourages people of all walks of life and religious beliefs to find ways to give to those in need. Sharing love is key, he said.
"It might not feel like you're doing a lot, but if you're thinking about it, that might be the only time that person ever receives a gift in their whole year," he said. "You don't know what kind of environment that person is in. To show love to the people that need it the most--it leaves a profound impact."
Anyone can make their own shoeboxes to send. Contact Ehlers at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Want to volunteer and serve the community over the holidays? Here are some more suggestions on ways to give back this holiday season. Please share your stories of volunteerism:
- 1. Help provide educational resources for students and educators.
While many schools gear up for winter breaks, students are still in need of assistance such as tutoring, SAT prep, college applications, and more. Tutoring students in your area, hosting workshops on a specific topic, and donating to school supply drives--or to individual educators--will help support learners.
- 2. Volunteer with food delivery services.
Consider taking meals or small treats, such as cookies or pastries, to neighbors or other community members to spread holiday cheer. Pantry 279 in Monroe County hosts an annual Thanksgiving Food Drive in which 2,000 Thanksgiving boxes will be assembled and distributed at the Monroe County Fairgrounds Community Building or delivered to homebound residents on Thanksgiving Day. Participate as a boxing and assembly helper, as a delivery driver, or on-site, for whatever is needed. Regular volunteers for pantry duties are also needed. Sign up for a shift online or contact Cindy Chavez at 812-606-1524 or email@example.com.
- 3. Serve free meals at a meal program
Community Kitchen of Monroe County prepares and serves free meals for in-house and carryout patrons at two locations in Bloomington. The kitchen typically needs over 100 volunteers per week to provide meal services. Contact: June Taylor at 812-332-0999 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- 4. “Adopt” a family or child.
Many organizations provide ways to “adopt” or sponsor a family or individual child during the holidays. A few examples include Toys for Tots, Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, Operation Christmas Spirit, and the Salvation Army Angel Tree.
- 5. Host a drive or collection.
Canned goods, coats, and toys are common items donated during the holiday season. While donating to organizations directly is one way to contribute, you can also personally host drives and collections. Plan a structured drive or even designate a space at home where people can make donations that you can later drop off to an appropriate organization, pantry, or nonprofit.
- 6. Volunteer at an animal shelter.
Studies show that connecting with animals is beneficial to mental health, and some shelters may need extra help due to staffing constraints around the holidays. Spend a day cleaning, petting and feeding shelter animals--or even just donate pet food or money--to help ensure that our furry friends stay healthy while waiting for their forever homes.
- 7. Become an advocate.
There are many advocacy and social justice groups and clubs on campus and throughout Bloomington. Learn more about these causes between semesters to get a head start on finding one you’re passionate about. There are also typically opportunities to be found in most cities, so it’s possible to get involved even if you aren’t on campus.
- 8. Donate to online organizations.
Every contribution matters. Consider supporting charities, organizations, and individuals financially through a $5 to $10 donation. GoFundMe fundraisers are a good way to find individuals and groups in need, and social media can also raise awareness of organizations that need extra support. Popular charities include Operation USA, The Innocence Project, The Trevor Project, and Scholarship America.