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Growing up in Russia, Valery Bianco never had a toy. There was no time for playing. He worked with his father on the family farm.

By the time Bianco was 9and a half years old (his mother had died, his father was in jail), he was living in an orphanage, and life just got tougher.

“You learn every bad habit there is to learn,” said Bianco, who recently spoke at the First Baptist Church of Waldorf. “All kids in orphanages think the same thing. They get up, and all you look forward to is for this day to be over.”

Fighting was a daily activity; some of the kids couldn’t remember not being in the orphanage. Some of the older boys, including Bianco, would fill the time after school scrounging for scrap metal to sell. One night they stayed out later than usual but found nothing.

When they got back to the orphanage that night, something was different. Staff members handed them each a box.

“What’s this?” some of them asked.

“It’s a gift,” was the answer.

“We all looked at each other and smiled,” Bianco, 18, said. “We felt hope.”

They were shoeboxes filled with toys, toiletries and school supplies from Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child, a Christian organization that provides aid to people around the world. Operation Christmas Child, which provides gifts to impoverished children, was founded in 1993. This year, it hopes to reach the 100-million deliveries mark, and the Southern Maryland organizers are setting the goal of donating 10,000 boxes. Last year, the local group collected 8,662 boxes.

“It’s all God,” said Melissa Weikel, the area coordinator who helped start the local group in 2004. “He’s just done some really good stuff here.”

Bianco’s visit to the church showed how much a little shoebox could change a person’s life and give them hope where there was none.

“I don’t remember much,” about all the gifts in the box, he admitted. There was a toothbrush and toothpaste, but there was also colored pens and a toy car that, even at 11, delighted him.

“It was the kind you pull back and let go and it hits the wall and flips over,” he said. “And the colored pens, I took them everywhere. I never had a toy before. My parents couldn’t afford them, and I had to work the whole time.”

A few years later, Bianco and his younger sister, Marina, were adopted by an American family. They started learning English and going to church with their new family. One day, Bianco’s older sister came home with a project.

She was packing a box. Curious, Bianco checked it out and saw the emblem of Operation Christmas Child.

“I remember that,” he said. “I shivered. All that excitement, it just came back to me … all the hope from that day.”

Bianco quickly joined in and began going to “packing parties” held at various churches in Oregon and has begun traveling to speak about Operation Christmas Child.

Weikel aimed for collecting 1,000 shoeboxes the first year; 3,000 were collected. She and the others in the ministry knew Operation Christmas Child would be a success in the area.

There will be a big push and national collection Nov. 12 to 19, but the team’s work isn’t restricted to just a week. Weikel suggested families and groups collect gifts during the year by hitting clearance racks for school supplies and toys.

“The area team works all year long,” Weikel said. It meets the third Thursday of each month at the church, which is on Bunker Hill Road. “We spread the word about the program, about the ministry. A small shoebox can do some amazing things.”

Bianco agreed.

“A shoebox made an incredible difference in that 11-year-old boy’s life,” he said about himself. “Sometimes when I’m packing boxes, I want to cry but then I remember I have more boxes to pack.”

staylor@somdnews.com

Operation Christmas Child will hold its collection week Nov. 12-19. Some local drop-off locations are Hughesville Baptist Church, 8505 Old Leonardtown Road, Hughesville; First Baptist Church, 9070 Hawthorne Road, La Plata; and First Baptist Church, 10045 Bunker Hill Road, Waldorf.

Items that can be included in shoeboxes are pens, pencils, stamps, writing pads, paper, picture and coloring books, toothbrushes and toothpaste, mild bar soap, combs, washcloths, hard candy and lollipops, mints, gum, sunglasses, hair clips, toy jewelry, watches, flashlights and batteries, small toy cars, dolls, kazoos, harmonicas, jump ropes, and toys that light up and make noise (along with extra batteries). Organizers request a donation of $7 per box to help with shipping costs.

For more information, email kmweikel@comcast.net or MEAbera@samaritan.org.