News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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September 16, 2013

Finding every way to give

Lifelong volunteer keeps donations close to her heart

TERRE HAUTE — At 80, Genevieve “Jenny” Wilson is revitalizing lives locally and globally — one shoebox at a time.

As a volunteer for Operation Christmas Child, a large Christmas project by Samaritan’s Purse, Wilson has touched the lives of many children overseas, and, as an added bonus, the lives of her friends in Terre Haute.

Operation Christmas Child distributes gift-filled shoeboxes to children worldwide. Since 1993, the project has collected and delivered more than 100 million shoeboxes to children in more than 100 countries.

Wilson has been involved with the project for many years through the First Baptist Church of North Terre Haute. But in recent years, she has served as a year-round volunteer, collecting, packing and getting others involved.

Those who know the Terre Haute resident well know just what to give her for her 80th birthday in April.

Eighty nicely decorated shoeboxes filled with gifts.   

Wilson’s family and friends knew that “the dearest thing to mom’s heart is Operation Christmas Child boxes,” so guests of her surprise birthday party — held at her church — were asked to bring small gifts to put in the boxes instead of a gift for the birthday celebrant.

 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes go to drop-off points in the U.S. before being shipped overseas. The boxes also include a small gospel book.

As she relaxed Thursday at Cannon Inn, an independent and assisted living facility in Terre Haute’s north side, Wilson spoke with energy and passion about the children’s plight.

She told the story of a boy from a Russian orphanage who was 9 when he got his Christmas shoebox and in it, a very valuable item: a washcloth.

Every morning, Wilson said, the boy was asked to wash his hands and face before breakfast.   

“They shared one towel. He said if he was down the line any distance at all, that towel was soaked” by the time he used it, Wilson said.

Upon receiving his box, the boy “held that [washcloth] up and he said, ‘I’ll never have to use that old towel again!’”

This story is only one of many that fuel Wilson’s passion for her work.

Their stories hit close to home for Wilson, who was born south of Effingham, Ill., “out in the country where we had nothing but love.”

And they are the stories she told that got many of her friends at Cannon Inn involved with the project.

“I come here [Cannon Inn] a lot because I got a lot of people from my church here in assisted living. In fact, my neighbor that lived across the street from me for 58 years had been here three years,” Wilson said.

And her presence is welcome.

“She has been our cheerleader,” Cannon Inn activity director Sharon Hathaway said. “Each time Jenny comes in, she just exudes a positive attitude.

“We get excited when she comes in,” Hathaway added.

On Thursday, she came in for a special activity.

Wilson, her friend and fellow volunteer, Dorothy Martin, and tenants at Cannon Inn packed shoeboxes with pencils, pads, clothes, bracelets, small toys and other items to send to children overseas.

One simple item, a pencil, is important to include.

“These children … they’re … so poor, if they don’t have a pencil, they can’t get an education,” Wilson said, so she makes sure each box has at least one pencil.

At the facility, Wilson excitedly showed the Tribune-Star how she made plain T-shirts look nicer for the kids by sewing emblems on them. She showed a smiley face, Minnie Mouse and dog emblems.

“I was a seamstress for 16 years. I still do a lot of sewing, but it’s all volunteer,” Wilson said.

In addition to getting items to donate from sales, Wilson also repurposes items. She sews clothes and turns recycled paper into writing pads for the children.

Wilson said she gains satisfaction just by knowing that “little kids are going to receive a gift and a pencil that they can get in school.”

Thursday was the day picked for packing the shoeboxes because it was National Assisted Living Week, Hathaway said.

The theme? “Homemade Happiness,” she said.

And it fits well because some of the items Wilson and the tenants put in the boxes were homemade.

“We made 494 bracelets,” Hathaway said.

The tenants also made tic-tac-toe games.

Since January, tenants have been donating cash and items for the project.

The project made the tenants feel that “that they are doing stuff. They are working,” said Hathaway.

And Wilson just gives them so much joy.

“Everybody here loves Jenny. And I think that feeling of this project has given us all a lift that we’re doing something. We’re not being done for,” Hathaway said.

“She is an 80-year-old cheerleader that acts like she’s 40,” she added.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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