Marlin Sena, a member of Harvest Presbyterian Church in Ceres, has returned from Kigali, Rwanda, Africa, where he helped distribute shoeboxes as part of Samaritan's Purses Operation Christmas Child program.
"It is something that I'll take to the grave," said Sena, who left on April 26 with 40 other OCC representatives and volunteers from across the United States. The group broke up into three teams to made six distributions of gifts to African children.
"We figure that we distributed over 700 ... at two churches and four schools," said Sena.
The group sat in a class of children who were offered a 12-week discipleship course called "the Greatest Journey series" to teach the children about the biblical account of Creation.
Sena's group returned on May 4.
Many churches and schools in the Ceres area participate in this annual holiday season collection of gifts to fill shoeboxes. A total of 22,708 shoeboxes filled with gifts were collected in 2013 from Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
However, because of the monumental size of the collection - a total of 9.1 million boxes - the gifts are often not delivered in time for the Christmas holiday.
"Like I tell people, this is not Santa Claus. Everything does not get delivered on Christmas Eve."
At times cartons are held up in Customs and there are delays in transporting them. Last week a group of Americans left for the Philippines for a distribution there.
"It goes six to eight months into the year," said Sena.
The Ceres resident said he was impressed with the cleanliness of Rwanda and how well-mannered, happy and loveable the children are.
"Hugs was a big thing there with the children."
He said he saw poverty - areas without running water or electricity - but there was no evidence of a lack of food.
"A lot of these children have nothing. I mean, you see them playing out in the dirt field or on the side of a hill and they're throwing rocks or kicking a rock or something and that's their entertainment. They're just as happy as can be, laughing and smiling and everything."
Sena said children were gathered and given boxes and signaled to open them up all at one time.
"We were able to mingle with them and go through their boxes and if there were items they weren't aware of what it is, showed them how to use them," said Sena. "One fellow had a yo-yo and they'd never seen a yo-yo before so we demonstrated how it worked. It was just fascinating."
The Americans got an up-close and sobering look at the genocide memorial where there was a mass burial site. An estimated 500,000 to one million were killed within 100 days in 1994 when the Tutsi and Hutu tribes conducted a killing rampage.
"These people really went through some torture and everything and some families were totally wiped out. We talked to a couple of people who actually went through that genocide and was able to escape and they saw their families being killed."
Sena said the country is more united today and there is an effort to indoctrinate the youngsters - who far outnumber adults - to live in harmony.
Sena is one of three West Coast volunteers who were chosen to go, one other being Becky Gross, the WC Regional Manager of OCC in Santa Ana. Sena and his wife, Marilyn Sena, are year-round volunteers with OCC. When he was selected to go to Africa, Harvest Presbyterian Church collected a love gift to help him defray expenses.