Luton mum Laura Kennedy will never forget the joy shining out of the children’s eyes.
She’d gone to Belarus with Operation Christmas Child, to hand out shoeboxes filled with lovingly packed gifts for the underpivileged youngsters.
“It brought a lump to my throat,” she admitted. “And once you’ve witnessed their wonder and excitement, it’s impossible to say ‘I’m not doing this again.’”
Laura, 51, of Barton Hills has been volunteering with the charity for more than 18 years.
“It’s like a drug,” she said in her gentle Scottish burr.
She spent six days in Serbia earlier this year visiting kindergartens, orphanages and hospitals as well as correctional schools where boys are sent if they’ve been caught wrongdoing.
“They may only have stolen something to eat,” she said. “But they’re put in these institutions for two years. It was really sad.”
She was completely taken aback by the poverty she encountered.
“I wasn’t prepared for people living in cardboard boxes and mud rivers,” she said. “I was gobsmacked.
“There’s no heating, no water, no nothing – just one pump at the end of the street.
“There are lots of alcoholics who make their own vodka. They can’t cope with their children, and the children are taken away.” She added; “The young people are all so grateful for everything. There’s none of the ‘I want’ you find with children here.” And she recounted the heartwarming story of the little boy who gave his precious box to a child who didn’t have one. The OCC team quickly found him an extra.
Laura, who runs a care agency in Stopsley, knows that Lutonians always respond generously to the annual Operation Christmas Child appeal. But she’s keen to encourage even more churches, schools, businesses and families to take part. She believes it’s particularly important to get younger family members involved because it instils the gift of giving and teaches them the magic of the Christmas message.
“You don’t have to spend a lot to do a shoebox,” she said. “And you can do it together.
“You can buy a tube of toothpaste for 29p and a bar of individually wrapped soap from Tesco for 15p.
“The Card Factory often has inexpensive cuddly toys. And I’ve started knitting simple scarves from a 100g ball of wool that costs only £1. Wilkinsons and Family Bargains also have lots of items that would make wonderful fillers.”
Fill one box and it becomes addictive, as Laura will testify.
She said: “I think I get far more out of it than the disadvantaged children they go to.”