Changed Lives, Changing Lives

November 10, 2014 • United States
Operation Christmas Child packing party

Women at a rehabilitation center in Arizona pass on the love they have learned by packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child

160x160Keshia Cisneros has been fighting her entire life.

Fighting a drug addiction, an abusive boyfriend, other gangs. Fighting to survive.

“I’m 26, and feel like I’m 40 with the drug use I’ve put my body through,” she said. “It’s been a hard, hard road.”

She never knew her father, and her mother was an addict. Her grandparents and an uncle raised Keshia and her siblings. She dropped out of school in the sixth grade.

Keshia was in a gang by the time she was 13, looking for the love and acceptance she lacked at home. She quickly became addicted to drugs such as methamphetamine and oxycodone. Estranged from her family, she was involved in an abusive relationship.

Everything changed the day her godson, Damien, was killed through child abuse. On the verge of taking her own life, Keshia fell to her knees at his graveside and cried out to God for help.

“The day we buried Damien, it had just got done raining and a rainbow appeared,” Keshia said. “That’s when I threw the pills out of my hand and I finally went home.”

Keshia's life began to change when she prayed for God's help after her godson was killed.

Keshia’s life began to change when she prayed for God’s help after her godson was killed.

Keshia ended up at the Changing Lives Center, a rehabilitation facility run by the Phoenix Rescue Mission in Arizona that helps vulnerable women break the cycle of addiction, abuse and poverty through counseling and faith in Jesus Christ.

It was there that Keshia trusted in Christ as her savior, and began to find healing.

“When I came here, God said I didn’t have to fight no more, that He would fight the fight for me,” she said. “Sometimes I wish (my past) was just a dream and I would wake up, but at the same time I love that God is in my life. It’s been an amazing change. I’m not angry no more. I’m not full of hate. I’m full of love, and kind to others. Before, I just didn’t even care for others; I just cared for myself.”

Her life blossoms with the evidence of her change. As she began to heal, her focus turned from herself and her own problems to others.

Now, she has started fighting for a cause—sending hope and love to children worldwide through Operation Christmas Child.

At CLC last year, Keshia and about 25 other women spent each Tuesday evening making small crafts and gathering other toys and necessities to pack in shoeboxes.

The women at Changing Lives Center make crafts to put in the shoeboxes.

The women at Changing Lives Center make crafts to put in the shoeboxes.

The women got involved with the Samaritan’s Purse project when Shannen Mills—a local Operation Christmas Child volunteer in the Phoenix area who also volunteered at CLC—had the idea after a shoebox packing party at her church. The thought of combining the two ministries just popped into her head, like a light bulb turning on.

Soon, a team of area volunteers was spending one night a week at the center, helping the women produce items for shoeboxes, as well as ministering to them through prayer, fellowship, and encouragement.

“The first Tuesday I was here, I got involved with the shoebox [gifts] and I just fell in love with it,” Keshia said. “It’s just amazing how you can make a child feel loved. And that’s all I can give to that box is just love.”

Passing On The Gift Of Love

Keshia is not the only woman at CLC who has nothing but love to give. Many come from living on the streets. Some are transitioning from time in jail. Others have left everything to escape abusive relationships.

God's transforming love helped Blake and Keshia leave their old lives behind.

God’s transforming love helped Blake and Keshia leave their old lives behind.

Blake Landry struggled with her self-worth. To escape, she turned to drugs and became addicted to methamphetamines and heroin. Her addiction drove her into homelessness. She was at the end of her rope with nowhere to go when she heard God speak to her.

“I came here because God called me here and I heard Him speak to me,” she said. “I just knew that for the first time in my life, I was doing the right thing and I was where God wanted me to be; and ever since then I had this peace about this place.”

Two days after arriving, Blake asked Jesus to come into her heart. Through counseling and hearing the Gospel, she began to see herself through God’s eyes. An understanding of God’s love and purpose for her took root in her mind. She learned to pray, read the Bible, and turn to God rather than drugs.

Little by little, her focus has shifted from herself to others. Like Keshia, a large part of that shift has come through Operation Christmas Child. Since the women started filling shoeboxes, Blake hardly missed a Tuesday craft night.

“I can’t even explain what it does when you’re making that box, but you could be in the worst mood, and then you can come in there and you can just start making this box for this little child,” she said. “Picturing what they want in it, it just overwhelms your heart with joy and you can just feel the presence of God while you’re doing it.”

Building Community By Giving

Linda O’Brien leads the Operation Christmas Child Phoenix area team where Shannen volunteers. Each week, Linda and several other women focus on the fellowship opportunities provided by working on shoebox gifts with the CLC women.

“They were very broken when we met them; and now they’re happy all the time,” Linda said. “Not that they don’t have struggles, but they know they have us sisters to stand beside them, encourage them, and they tell us that all the time.”

Barbara Sloan leads a counseling session at the center.

Barbara Sloan leads a counseling session at the center.

Barbara Sloan is the program director at CLC. She said that making the items and packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes there has been an important part of building community among the women. Each week, they gather around tables in the center’s cafeteria, laughing and chatting as they paint wooden crosses, glue masks or bookmarks, and weave bracelets.

“The little shoeboxes that the girls put together is an important ministry, and they saw that they can impact a life outside of our community,” Barbara said. “But the impact our girls have made on Linda’s group—and the impact Linda’s group has made on our girls—is where real ministry is.”

Linda has noticed a renewed sense of purpose in the women who participate. Their weekly meetings are full of joy, and they have embraced it with enthusiasm.

The resident's celebrate God's goodness after doubling their goal.

The resident’s celebrate God’s goodness after doubling their goal.

At a packing party last fall, they hoped to fill 200 shoeboxes. The community got involved and donated crafts, toys, hygiene items, and school supplies, and they doubled their goal and packed 400 shoeboxes. A local business even donated the $9 per shoebox donation* for shipping and other program costs to get the gifts to children around the world.

“We are just so blessed to watch two girls who came off the streets and now are so mature in Christ and love Him so much that it does our hearts good,” Linda said. “From one week to another, we see them coming out of real darkness into the light, and seeing God work in their lives and answering their prayers. We’ve praised the Lord with them. We celebrate what God is doing in their lives.”

The women who participate even find packing shoeboxes therapeutic, and through it, aim to show others that they are more than their problems.

“I’ve been recognized for the bad for many years and it got me nowhere,” Keshia said. “Now that I’m doing good, it’s getting me somewhere and I’m getting recognized for not just my recovery, but for the good and the positive I’m doing in other’s lives.”

*The suggested per shoebox donation is $9 as of 2017.