Shoe box gifts bring joy, celebration to an indigenous village in Ecuador
The young dancers marched in step, twirled, and then came together to form a circle in a dazzling spectacle of motion and color. They broke the rhythm of the music only long enough to invite onlookers seated in chairs around the schoolyard to join the promenade.
One grade after another took turns on a drizzly February morning, entertaining the guests from the United States. Although the visitors had come to bring Operation Christmas Child shoe box gifts to the students at San Pedro school in the village of Pijal, it was the children who were stealing the show with their gift of dance and music.
Their festive clothes and felt hats are those traditionally worn by the Kayambi, an indigenous people whose ancestors inhabited the land comprising present-day Ecuador before the arrival of the Incas. The girls are dressed in white embroidered blouses and brightly hued skirts. The boys wear white shirts and knickers with dark blue ponchos.
After the dance routines, the much anticipated moment arrived as boys and girls lined up according to age groups to receive shoe boxes filled with gifts.
“Uno, dos, tres!”
At the count of three, the children popped open the lids. Shouts of joy followed.
Five-year-old Emily cradled a teddy bear in one hand and a pink Barbie water bottle almost as bright as her dress in the other.
Christopher, 4, showed his mother the red ball and toy dinosaur from his box. His younger sister Jonsu sat beside him, pulling out a stuffed animal from among the gifts she received.
The celebration was repeated in other schools and churches last month, as thousands of children in northern Ecuador received shoe box gifts during a three-day span.
A Kayambi woman named Gloria was overcome with emotion as she watched her three children, ages 2 ½, 5, and 9, proudly show her the toys and coloring books in their boxes.
“We are grateful for these gifts for our children,” she said. “These are things my husband and I aren’t able to give to them.”
Gloria and her husband own two acres of land in Pijal, an agricultural community about a two-hour drive north of the capital city of Quito. They enjoy the quiet, simple life of the countryside. The black volcanic soil yields a bountiful crop of corn and potatoes. They also raise hogs and guinea pigs to sell.
The estimated 3,000 Kayambi who inhabit this region are known for their traditional dances, colorful clothing, and handicrafts. They live in one of the most picturesque areas of the country. Tourists flock to the area to sail across San Pablo Lake or to hike the slopes of Imbabura, an inactive volcano.
A closer look reveals a darker portrait of the struggles of the Kayambi. With few jobs in the area, many husbands and fathers must drive to Quito to find employment. Some work even further away in the jungle oilfields. Women are left with the responsibility to take care of the children, the home, and the farm.
Sadly, it is the children who usually end up being neglected. An estimated 40 percent do not finish high school. Teen pregnancy is common. So is the continuing cycle of poverty and desperation.
That’s why Operation Christmas Child is sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with children in the Kayambi communities and throughout Ecuador.
Pastor Carmen Castaneda moved from Quito to Pijal four months ago. She estimated there are about 700 families here, and she hopes to eventually minister to every one.
“It has been a challenge for me,” she said. “Only 15 families come to my church now. The children come to activities but their parents don’t. We are working on that.”
Through a partnership with another ministry, her church offers programs for the children on Monday and Tuesday evenings that include a meal, devotional time, and singing. They also receive help with their homework. Over 200 children participate in the program, but far fewer attend Sunday worship services.
The Operation Christmas Child celebration at San Pedro may be just the spark needed to bring more boys and girls to church, along with their parents. The youth group from Carmen’s church presented the Gospel through skits and a puppet show before the children received their shoe box gifts.
“Please pray for these youth,” she implored. “They are working hard to evangelize the area through the children. It is through the children that families will come to know Christ. We need to be patient and keep working.”
In addition to shoe box distributions, Operation Christmas Child partners with local churches like Carmen’s to offer the follow-up discipleship program, The Greatest Journey. Over the past few years, nearly 10,000 children in this province have graduated from the 12-lesson Bible study. This year the curriculum will be available to churches in 10 provinces in Ecuador, with plans to reach 30,000 children throughout the country.
“We have to take care of the little ones because they are very vulnerable,” Carmen said. “You came and not only gave them presents today, you gave them love. You made them feel important. Thank you.”