A woman who received a shoe box gift as a child in Romania helps others by volunteering with Operation Christmas Child year-round
April 21-27 is National Volunteer Week in the United States. We will be spotlighting Samaritan’s Purse volunteers, and volunteer opportunities, throughout the week.
Andrea “Andy” Bollinger loves volunteering. She also loves children. So when she discovered that there were opportunities to volunteer year-round with Operation Christmas Child, she jumped at the chance.
She visits churches to speak about how individuals and congregations can get involved by packing shoe boxes with small gifts for children around the world.
“To me, [volunteering] came naturally,” Andy said. “Once you pack shoe boxes and you really grasp and see what it is about, my natural reaction is ‘How can I help more and how can I do more?’”
See how Operation Christmas Child volunteers are blessed by serving with the project
Unlike most Operation Christmas Child volunteers in the United States, Andy has a deeper connection that compels her to serve. Her life was touched when she received a shoe box gift while a child in post-Communist Romania.
“I like to do something that was done to me, and I see how much it affected and encouraged me and gave me hope,” she said.
She vividly remembers the winter day when she was 8 or 9 years old. She learned there would be gifts waiting for her and the other children in her church in Craiova, Romania.
Andy was immediately struck with awe by the beautifully wrapped boxes that were stacked high along the walls. Just a year or two had passed since the Communist government had toppled, and the people were not used to such abundant, colorful gifts brightening what seemed like a dull, gray world.
“I felt like I was in those Disney movies when you are like a poor person, kind of like Cinderella, and you turn and see the castle,” she said. “And that’s what I remember, boxes being stacked up the walls. I had never seen such beautiful wrapping paper. We didn’t have such beautiful things.
“For me as a little girl, to understand that even if I’m in this poor country and my parents cannot afford to buy us everything like oranges and some chocolates for Christmas, to see how God knew our desire and He gave us exactly what we wanted. And not even just a toothbrush and toothpaste or soap, which are necessities, but a teddy bear that you just want to hold.”
Andy now lives in Jackson, Missouri, with her husband, Levi. She travels throughout the state, encouraging others to pack shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child. Wherever she goes, she brings a box still wrapped in flowery, slightly tattered, wallpaper. Packed inside are several items that she still treasures about 20 years later.
As she shares her story, she pulls out her teddy bear, a hat and scarf, and her sister’s doll, made of cloth and dressed in calico with yarn for hair.
“They do look old,” she said, “but they are all intact, hands and feet, everything, all the eyes together. Even if they would be missing, they would still be precious to us.”
While her shoe box gift always reminded her of God’s faithfulness, Andy didn’t come to faith in Jesus until much later in life. Whenever a call was made to accept Christ she remembers thinking that those who responded had just made the best decision of their lives. But she was too embarrassed to go herself, wondering what people would think after all the years of seeing her in church.
She met Levi Bollinger in 2005, when they both studied abroad in Leon, Spain. When Levi returned to the U.S., he thought he would never see Andy again. But the two kept in touch, and their emails and Skype conversations got longer and longer. Their relationship continued to grow, and eventually he asked her to marry him.
“When God puts two people together, an ocean in the middle is like a drop of water. It’s not much,” Andy said.
After they were married in 2008, she told Levi her one secret. She knew she had to invite Jesus into her heart.
“Levi prayed with me,” she said. “I remember how overwhelmed I was, and the first thing that came to my mind was how God has so much patience.”
Looking back, she sees that the shoe box gift was a big step toward her journey of faith. It showed her that God cared for her. She liked making cards as a little girl, and remembers being in awe that she received construction paper and glitter pens in her box.
“We didn’t have such beautiful paper,” she said. “And to see He sent something like that in my box, obviously He knew me by name, and He knew my needs.”
Now that Andy is able to pack shoe boxes of her own, she is thrilled to be the catalyst that God uses to prove His love for a little girl somewhere who might be just like her.
“I pack for girls, and I always like colorful stuff,” she said. “So the glitzier, the fluffier, the better.”
She and Levi wanted to do more than pack boxes so they started volunteering at their local drop-off site, collecting the boxes that people in their area packed and sending them to a processing center for shipment overseas.
Then she started telling her story at churches in the area, encouraging people to get involved and pack more shoe boxes. Levi, who is also a year-round volunteer, often shares how churches can get involved with The Greatest Journey, the follow-up Bible lessons that are offered to children after they receive a shoe box.
She and Levi have traveled to four different Connect conferences for year-round Operation Christmas Child volunteers, including the global gathering in Orlando in early April.
The conferences help refresh and renew the couple’s passion for sharing Christ with children through the project, and they provide opportunities to fellowship with other volunteers around the world who share the same passion for shoe box gifts.
“We love the ministry. It is so simple, but it touches so many lives,” Andy said. “It is a simple gift, but it’s powerful because it’s God in it and over it as well. And of course it shows about the love of God, and I want more children to find out about that.”