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Inspired charity begins fifth year in River Falls

October 25, 2007

Zer Vang spent four years of his childhood in a Thai refugee resettlement camp without electricity, running water and other comforts in life.

Like 5,000 other refugees, Zer lived in a bamboo house and relied on wood to make fire, which in turn allowed him to eat cooked food and drink safe water. Food rations for the entire day were distributed to each family in the morning.

“Every day was different,” Zer said. “I think Monday was rice and Tuesday was fish.”

Despite the living conditions, there was one time of the year that excited young children in the camp.

“As far as I remember it was right around Christmas time,” Zer said.

During that time, the children would receive gift-wrapped shoeboxes filled with presents.

“We received toys and playing cards,” Zer said, “I remember one year I got a little robot.”

Zer eventually moved to the United States and became a student at UW-River Falls where, for one semester, he was part of the Community Action Theater Troupe (CATTS). Word of Zer’s story spread throughout CATTS and spawned UWRF’s relationship with Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a charity that sends shoe boxes filled with gifts to children devastated by war, natural disaster, poverty and disease. The boxes are gift wrapped and sent to various destinations throughout the world, including third world countries and impoverished Native American reservations around the United States. Last year, CATTS, in collaboration with other on-campus and community organizations like the Native American Council (NAC), filled 360 boxes. Those 360 boxes contributed to the collective 7.6 million that were delivered in 2006.

CATTS advisor Linda Alvarez said she is hopeful that this year will be even more successful than the last.

“We are hoping to send out 400 boxes,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know if we’ll make it but we’ll try hard to.”

Anyone who wishes to help can donate new individual items, completed boxes closed with a strong rubber band or cash contributions that will go to towards the shipping and handling expenses for each shoebox. Besides toys, clothes, school supplies and other non-perishable gifts, students are urged to send sentimental gifts that could brighten up a child’s life.

“If a person just wants to send a Christmas card or something similar they may,” Alvarez said. “Most of these kids have never received a gift in their lives.”

Donation drop off sites are set up throughout the campus and the community, including the Chalmer Davee Library, University Center, all of the residence halls and Freeman Drug on 104 S. Main St. Contributions will be accepted until Nov. 11 with a culminating gift wrapping party scheduled for Nov. 13-14 in room 104B of the library.

UWRF’s affiliation with OCC is a small piece of a massive global endeavor. OCC is a project set up by Samaritan’s Purse, which is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world, according to their mission statement.

For over 35 years, Samaritan’s Purse has done their utmost to follow Christ’s command by going to the aid of the world’s poor, sick and suffering, according to their Web site. Although the organization serves the church worldwide to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it did not turn out to be an issue when the student organizations on campus decided to take part in OCC.

“The students decided [the Christian affiliation] wasn’t a factor because the main emphasis was on poverty, literacy and food distribution,” Alvarez said.