Please don’t mistake sisters Sheila and Teresa Martens for the second coming of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines and infamous shoehorse, the next time you spot them exiting a retail store near you with a shopping cart loaded to the hilt with shoeboxes.
"One time I was coming out of Walmart with probably 40 boxes or so," says Sheila, who lives with her sister in Miami, about 120 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. "A bunch of people were looking at me like I was crazy or something and I wanted to yell, ‘Hey, don’t worry. They’re all empty!’"
Since 2001, the pair have devoted a sizable chunk of their free time to filling shoeboxes with toys, school supplies and clothing items for underprivileged children living in Africa, Central America and South America on behalf of Operation Christmas Child, a charity run by international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse Canada.
Whenever they visit Winnipeg, they drop by stores across the city to scoop up discarded shoeboxes managers have graciously set aside for them to house their donations.
How’s this for a nice round number? Earlier this month, the women put the finishing touches on the 5,000th shoebox of their "career," a mark they are certain would have put a big smile on the face of their mother, Leona, who died unexpectedly in 2019. After all, she was the one who got them started on their philanthropic journey in the first place, Teresa is quick to point out.
"She used to get so excited whenever she saw an empty shoebox, because what she really saw was a child in need," Sheila pipes in. "This has been our family charity for almost 20 years, and while we really missed doing this with Mom this past year, we felt it was our duty to carry on her legacy."
All three women were living in Carman in October 2001 when Leona came home one afternoon and told her daughters about a public service announcement she’d heard on CFAM-AM 950, which broadcasts out of Altona. Friends Community Church in Carman was participating in Operation Christmas Child’s shoebox project, the announcer said, and Leona wanted to know if her daughters would give her a hand contributing to the cause.
A month later, the three of them dropped off 10 shoeboxes they’d managed to fill with various trinkets they’d scooped up at secondhand shops and dollar stores around their area.
They kept at it in the ensuing years, putting together as many boxes as time and their finances would allow. Things really took a turn, numbers-wise, in 2008, after Sheila, who had moved to Winnipeg a few years earlier, sold her home. She got "way more" than her asking price, she says, and poured much of the profits into their charity-of-choice by purchasing enough playthings and assorted other items to fill just over 800 boxes.
It gets better. Because she was buying in bulk —100 Hot Wheels cars here, 200 Barbie dolls there — the three of them came up with the idea to make every box an individual work of art, by creating themes based on popular TV shows and movies. (Because some of the recipients of the boxes live in battle-torn nations, any type of offering depicting war — even Star Wars figures — is verboten.)
"We’d start by decorating the box inside and out with wrapping paper appropriate to whatever theme we’d chosen, be it princesses or sports, then pack it with toys and things like calendars and mini-backpacks to match," Teresa says, noting she’s been a Disney "nut" since she was a kid, so shopping for pieces associated with flicks such as Frozen and Tangled is always "a blast."
"Although some of the things going into each box are similar, we can safely say all of the boxes we’ve made to date are one-of-a-kind."
Operation Christmas Child, with more than 400 dropoff locations across the country (all Canadian contributions are forwarded to and distributed out of Calgary), asks donors to keep six groups of children in mind when packing a box: boys or girls ages two to four, five to nine and 10 to 14.
Beneficiaries aren’t required to reach out and thank the individuals who put a giftbox together for them, but the siblings have been on the receiving end of a few heartfelt messages through the years, nonetheless.
“We do this year–round. We’re forever keeping our eyes open for bargains.” – Teresa Martens
"There was one boy from Ecuador who unpacked his — I believe it was a Tarzan theme — with a volunteer who had a phone and was able to snap a few pictures of him," Sheila says. "He sent us a little note along with a photo saying not only did he love his gifts, but how he was going to take special care of the box itself, he liked it so much."
Cut-off for the annual campaign is Nov. 22. And while that is the date the sisters load up their Toyota Rav to look like Santa’s sleigh before driving 30 minutes to Winkler to deliver their lot to the nearest participating church, it isn’t when they put their feet up for another 12 months. Not by a long shot.
"We do this year-round. We’re forever keeping our eyes open for bargains," Teresa says, mentioning God works in mysterious ways indeed, often leading them down store aisles where dolls or sporting goods have been marked down as much as 90 per cent. "When everybody starts blowing out Christmas wrap on Boxing Day, we’re usually in the parking lot by 6 (a.m.), waiting for the doors to open."
In September, just before the campaign kicked into full gear for the 2020 holiday season, the women were asked by members of different places of worship if they’d be interested in teaching a how-to course related to the shoebox project. Although rising COVID-19 numbers in the province have ruled out any such endeavour for the time being, Sheila knows precisely what her intro would be, if and when such an activity were to take place down the road.
"It’s all about giving: that would be the first thing I’d tell people," Sheila says. "We know that with all the COVID and craziness going on in the world nowadays, there will be a lot of charities hurting, and there are going to be a lot of people in a situation where they’re unable to give.
"Our challenge to others is to not put the brakes on giving. There are a lot of children out there in the world who are hurting, and we want them to know they matter."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.