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A shoebox surprise: As a refugee, Maylary Htoo Apolo received gifts from Operation Christmas Child. Now, she’s helping the cause

Joyce Klosterbuer, Maylary Htoo Apolo and Marian Hayenga are all part of the Operation Christmas Child effort in Worthington. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- When you live in a refugee camp for 20 years, surprises don’t often come in colorful green and red boxes, filled with toys and books and other fascinating items. Surprises are far more likely to take the form of holes in your windowless bamboo hut, or leaks in your leafy roof. To think that your children will receive a gift – and not just one time, but for year after year – is a thing far too great to even imagine.


For Maylary Htoo Apolo, who has now called Worthington home for five years, the memory of those boxes -- Operation Christmas Child gifts -- still brings her joy and gratitude to the point of tears.


“As parents we were really happy that our kids were so happy (to receive the boxes),” Apolo remembers. “They received a box every year, and so it was really helpful.”


Forced to flee Burma with her family due to civil war, Apolo and her sisters and parents wound up at a refugee camp on the Burmese border around the time of the Student Uprising on Aug. 8, 1988.


“Because my dad, he is a pastor and he had been in the British Army, they didn’t like him,” Apolo said. “He had to be careful with his preaching. We lived at the border for 10 months, and then the military attacked the camp and we went to the Mawker camp on the Thai/Burma border for two years.


“Then we went to the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand for 18 years,” Apolo continued. “Before all that I was in Burma for 20 years, and then we moved to the United States eight years ago. I never thought that I’d come to Worthington, but it was God’s plan for me.”


God’s plan kept her safe and happy even in the camps. Though a refugee camp is hardly known as a place of culture and refinement, even there Apolo was able to pursue a lifelong passion she had for music.


“(When I was small), since my father was a pastor I would go with him to pray for people. One time I saw a guy who was playing a piano in a lady’s house and I asked my dad, ‘I want to play piano.’” Apolo smiled at the memory. “He asked me, ‘Are you sure? You will play piano for church?’ I said, ‘Yes! I am sure!’”


Apolo received lessons up through seventh grade in her village and then went to Rangoon for eighth grade and received lessons there. Living in a refugee camp might have been the end of any piano dreams, but word got around that Apolo played, and she ended up with access to a piano and even taught music at a Bible school in the camp. It was through the school that Apolo’s children received their first Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.


“Before we had kids we had three kids living with us to learn piano,” Apolo said. “Two of those piano kids have come Worthington with us.”

While being a parent to three live-in piano students, Apolo wasn’t aware of Operation Christmas Child. After her own children were born, however, that’s about the time that Samaritan’s Purse, the organization that founded and operates Operation Christmas Child, began distributing the shoeboxes worldwide.


“When my eldest daughter was born we received a box for her. She received one each year and my other daughters, too, until my youngest son was born. His sisters remember receiving the boxes, but he doesn’t. He was too little.”


Among the cherished items in the box were small toys, coloring books and a Bible story book.


“We don’t have library in the camp; it was very precious to receive that,” Apolo shared. “I loved the coloring books, too. The kids didn’t understand about the books as much but they loved the toys. When they received those, they were very happy. Every year I hope to find a Bible story book.”


Apolo admitted that there were some items they didn’t fully understand. Today the guidelines for packing the boxes prohibit liquids or lotions, but in the beginning she recalls one child in the camp getting a small tube of lotion.


“He put it in his hair to wash it,” Apolo laughed. “It dried on, but then it rained. It was not good.”


Things like “bubble juice,” too, are not allowed, which may ostensibly be because of leakage, but Apolo said children could easily drink the stuff, not understanding what it is for. Items like gloves, too, weren’t very helpful to children in the jungles of Thailand.


These days, here at home in America, Apolo and her family find themselves on the opposite end of the shoebox scenario.


“Now my kids prepare boxes by themselves. Mostly toys for the right age, but also a book that tells about Jesus. And the coloring books! As a parent, I always loved those,” she emphasized again with a laugh. “I know that the boxes 100 percent make children happy. I really appreciate that I can buy stuff for a box now.”


Joyce Klosterbuer and Marian Hayenga have worked together on Operation Christmas Child locally since 1994. What started out as a Vacation Bible School project at American Reformed Church with a few shoeboxes packed has turned into a huge volunteer effort each November, involving the whole community and even the region.


“The first few years we mailed the boxes ourselves,” explained Klosterbuer. “Then Sathers delivered them for us in one of their trucks. Then Sioux Falls collected them from us, and then we became a collection center a few years ago.”


This means that anyone in the region who desires to donate a filled box may bring their shoeboxes to the American Reformed Church between Nov. 14 and 21, and Samaritan’s Purse will pick them up there to take them on to their distribution points.


“The football team (from Minnesota West Community and Technical College) comes and loads the cartons onto the truck,” explained Hayenga. “We put the shoeboxes into big cartons, with 22 boxes per carton.”


Klosterbuer’s goal for this year is 12,000 boxes sent from Worthington. With last year’s record of 11,087 packed locally, that isn’t a far reach.


There are certain things to remember when packing a shoebox, according to Samaritan’s Purse guidelines. Any shoebox will do, or you may pick up official red and green boxes at the church. Choose the age and gender of the child you are aiming for. In general, the ages are broken down as 2 to 4 years old, 5 to 9 years old and 10 to 14 years old.


Next, choose one “wow” toy to include and then add smaller toys, school supplies or hygiene items to fill up the box. Remember to pray for the child who will receive your box. A personal photo or letter may be included if you desire. A $7 donation to cover distribution costs is requested for each box.


Items to exclude are liquids, chocolates, toy guns or other “military” types of playthings, seeds, medicines of any kind, anything glass and aerosol cans.


Donations may be brought to American Reformed Church, 1720 Burlington Ave, Worthington, between Nov. 14-21. Monday – Saturday the hours of collection will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Sunday the 20th, the church will be open from noon until 6 p.m.. On the final day, the 21st, it will be open from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. when the cartons will be loaded onto the truck. Call the church at 376-6517 or Joyce at 376-6753 for more information.