BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Kim and Jordy Henson didn’t think the shoebox was a big deal. They wanted to teach their three young daughters the value of giving, and packing a shoebox with small gifts for a child in need seemed like a great opportunity.
Kim took the girls shopping and together they picked out items to fill the box - crayons, gummy bears, a bouncy ball, a pair of socks. Then they prayed over it as a family, dropped in a note and a picture of the girls, and sent it on its way.
“It wasn’t a huge thing,” Kim said.
“Part of the lesson was to show the girls how blessed they are,” Jordy said. “As Americans, we’re just spoiled. You look at a shoebox and think, that’s no big deal. But it is.”
That lesson came full circle earlier this month when the recipient of the box unexpectedly reached out to say thank you, 18 years after opening the shoebox half a world away, in a place devastated by war. The gesture led to phone calls and a budding friendship between the Hensons and the young woman, who says the shoebox gift changed her life.
“It gave me a whole new perspective on the season,” Kim said.
“It’s about generosity and grace and mercy,” Jordy said. “And realizing that little things can make a big difference,” Kim added.
The Hensons have participated in Operation Christmas Child through their church, Shades Mountain Baptist in Vestavia Hills, since their children were young. The ministry, an initiative of the Christian relief organization Samaritans Purse, asks people to pack simple toys, hygiene items and school supplies in a shoebox for children in need around the world. The program began in 1993 and has provided 135 million shoeboxes to children in 150 countries.
One of those countries was Kosovo, scarred by war between the Serbians and Albanians that ended in 1999. Gresa Sahatciu was 11-years-old when her family returned to their home in the small town of Peja after fleeing the war. Schools were just beginning to rebuild. Gresa remembers her class lining up in a half-built sports stadium for a surprise.
“Santa came to visit, and he reached into a big box and picked a shoebox and handed it to me,” Gresa said.
The box was wrapped in red, shiny paper and represented the first Christmas gift Gresa had ever received. She ran home from school with the box in her arms, excitedly shouting out to her neighbors, and then carefully opened it in front of her family.
“Honestly, I didn’t really understand what it meant to have a gift until that box came,” Gresa said. “I felt joy. I remember realizing that there were people out there who cared for others. To this day, when I think about it, I get goosebumps.”
Inside the box, Gresa found the small items the Hensons had packed, including a pair of socks that she wore almost every day, until the socks fell apart. Her family also discovered the picture of the Henson girls with a note, but they didn’t speak English so they weren’t sure what it meant. Gresa’s uncle spoke a little English and was able to translate the message as “God bless you.”
“It really touched our lives, especially mine,” Gresa said. “Nobody knew that we needed socks, but somehow God sent that message. To me, it was just the best thing in the world.”
Gresa’s family eventually immigrated to the United States through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the green card lottery. They settled in Orlando, Florida and Gresa told her mother she wanted to find the Henson family to tell them thank you. The picture of the Henson girls with the note was the only clue they had, but they didn’t know anyone in Alabama. Gresa tried to do an internet search, but it didn’t turn up anything.
Years passed, and Gresa didn’t forget about her desire to find the Hensons, but life took over. She learned to speak English and is now in college at the University of Central Florida, studying international law and marketing. She’s also worked for Disney World for over a decade, currently serving as a resort duty manager at two Disney hotels.
Some time ago, one of her coworkers shared that she was involved in Operation Christmas Child through her church, and something inside Gresa clicked with the memory of the shoebox she received years before in Kosovo.
“I started crying and told her, ‘That’s me! I got one of those boxes!’” Gresa remembered.
That led Gresa to begin volunteering with Operation Christmas Child and in early December, she decided to try to find the Hensons again. A google search led her to an article about them on the Shades Mountain Baptist Church website, and Gresa immediately picked up the phone and called the church, leaving a message that detailed who she was, and that she was calling to express her gratitude for the gift she had received almost two decades ago.
“I thought, these people are going to think I’m crazy!” she said.
They didn’t. Kim was volunteering at the church when the church secretary played the message for her. As Kim stood listening to Gresa’s voice, her eyes grew big with the realization that the woman leaving the message was talking about her family and the shoebox gift they sent out years ago.
“I just tried to imagine how old she was, what this child must have gone through, and I couldn’t believe it,” Kim said. “We’ve done so many boxes and I’ve never heard from anyone before.”
Kim met Jordy at home to talk about what to do next and they agreed to call Gresa back. When Gresa’s phone rang and she saw the Birmingham area code on caller ID, the tears began to fall.
“The moment I answered the phone, they treated me like family,” Gresa said.
She shared her story over the phone with Kim and Jordy and they all immediately hit it off. Kim said this incredible moment came at a perfect time for her family. Her father had been in the hospital and she’d been rushing around, stressed out about finishing her Christmas shopping.
“This is just a gift from God,” Jordy said. “Gresa is so sweet, and she’s been through hell on earth and just to see that what we do matters, it makes a difference,” he said.
When I interviewed the Hensons at Shades Mountain Baptist Church a week after they first connected with Gresa, they Facetimed with her for the first time, the three of them beaming at each other, fighting off happy tears.
“You guys are so cute!” Gresa squealed.
They talked about introducing Gresa to their daughters, Heather, Holly and Hope. Jordy suggested flying Gresa to Birmingham in early 2019. They made plans to talk again before Christmas. Before they all said goodbye, I asked Gresa what her message would be to others about supporting charity during the season of giving.
“Any gesture you make in life, it could be a smile, or a small box, you just don’t know what goes on in different parts of the world where parents are struggling to feed their kids,” Gresa said.
“Little things mean so much in life,” she added. “I am proof of that. You can make a huge difference in the world.”