Wednesday 22 October 2014

An Irish charity helping the boys and girls of Kosovo to smile again. . .

'Team Hope' volunteers are bringing gifts to the overjoyed local children, writes Graham Clifford

In a damp, unadorned hallway the boxes are carefully mounted on top of each other. Each one adds a much needed splash of colour to a bleak interior.

Bright sheets of wrapping paper, depicting smiling snowmen and flickering candles, are embraced by shiny bows, straps emblazoned with the words 'Team Hope' criss-crossing each rectangular container.

We are in the home of a young family in the mountainous Kosovar village of Demjan – a house with no central heating and intermittent electricity. It's minus five outside and the dreaded winter snow has started to fall.

Here the Irish Christian charity Team Hope has decided to hand out shoeboxes filled with gifts and word has spread that the volunteers have arrived.

"They're here, the boxes are here," shouts one animated toddler in Albanian – a beaming smile reaching from one ear to the next. In a small unfurnished room over 70 children sit waiting patiently.

Trucks filled with almost 10,000 shoeboxes, packed with presents donated by schoolchildren and families across Co Donegal, arrived into Kosovo a few days earlier. I've joined the Team Hope group of volunteers to distribute some of them in the city of Gjakove.

This Christmas the charity will distribute just under 170,000 shoeboxes to children in locations such as Kosovo, Romania, the Ukraine, Burundi and Swaziland.

After the volunteers perform a few verses of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer the children are told how these boxes were packed by youngsters just like them in Ireland.

A leaflet handed out to every child details the charity's Christian message but with toys so tantalisingly close they're discarded in the excitement.

Model cars, skipping ropes, dolls and teddies sit side-by-side with more practical gifts such as gloves, hats, toothbrushes and bars of soap. The charity advises families what to put into each box and help sort the contents before they leave Dublin.

Many of the children in this house go for days without food and usually could only dream of being presented with a gift at Christmas. Santa Claus usually doesn't come this way.

Understandably then smiles and laughter bring warmth on this freezing afternoon.

But seven-year-old Ardita doesn't smile – despite holding her shoebox closely. This is her house which she shares with her parents and two brothers.

"Tonight I don't have wood to heat the rooms for my children. We'll sleep in one room because it's less cold when we are all together. We pray that God will protect us this winter."

Outside a school in a Romany community beautiful brown eyes peer up from underneath hoods as the Team Hope volunteers visit their next distribution site.

The Irish contingent is a varied crew. There's a shop assistant, a cameraman, musician, photographer, a housewife, bank official, Montessori teacher and a playgroup leader. Some, but not all, are devout Christians.

Irish Independent

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