WATERLOO — Dania Yadago was an impoverished 5-year-old living in the Middle East when she received a shoebox full of gifts from a complete stranger.

More than two decades later, the 26-year-old now living in Charlotte, N.C., is traversing the U.S. sharing her story about how that simple gesture changed her life.

“The fact that I received a gift when I had not received one before; the fact that somebody I don’t know gave it to me; and the fact that everything inside was of such good quality and brand new made a huge impact in my life,” she said.

Yadago was at the Waterloo Chick-fil-A restaurant Thursday promoting Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian organization providing humanitarian aid around the world.

Yadago is one of more than 168 million children in more than 100 countries who’ve received through the program since 1993.

“I love just telling people the kind of impact they get to be a part of and how it was impactful for me when I was a little girl,” she said. “I can never imagine my life without having the shoebox in it.”

As Christians in the Middle East, Yadago said her family suffered from poverty and religious persecution, which made it difficult for her parents to provide even basic necessities.

“Sometimes we ate raw onion and bread for our food because that’s all we could afford,” she said. “Everything I had was given to me from other people. I never enjoyed having my own personal items.

“My parents always encouraged me to pray for the things that I needed. Something supernatural had to happen for us to have our needs provided. They trusted that God would provide for us.”

The prayers were answered when Yadago received a shoebox filled with school supplies, like pencils and notebooks; toys like a Slinkly and Beanie Baby; and hygiene items like a toothbrush and soap.

The box also included a miniature radio, something her family strongly desired but was too expensive to buy on their own.

The family moved to the U.S. as refugees in 2010, escaping war, poverty and persecution. Yadago was thrilled to connect with Samaritan’s Purse and now works for the organization full time.

Margaret “Mugs” Barnes showed up Thursday to meet Yadago. The Cedar Falls resident has been buying and packing shoeboxes for the program since 2007 and estimates she puts in 50 hours a week making it happen.

“I’ve been packing 600 to 800 a year,” Barnes said. “I have a little factory in my house. This year I have 1,220 shoeboxes that I’ve paid for and packed in my home.

“I get these videos of these little kids that have never had a toy or a bar of soap and they’re smiling from ear to ear,” she added. “I just have to pack more shoeboxes.”

Samaritan’s Purse collects the shoeboxes once a year and has drop-off locations across the country. This year’s collection week is Nov. 18-25.

Those wanting to donate can pack their own shoebox with school supplies, hygiene items, toys and a note or photo for a child. Shoeboxes can also be purchased from Operation Christmas Child.

More information about what can be included in the boxes and how to donate can be found online at www.samaritanspurse.org/occ. The site also includes a list of drop-off sites, which includes Cedar Valley Church, 3520 Ansborough Ave., Waterloo.

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