Growing up, one of my family’s Christmas traditions was filling shoeboxes around Thanksgiving to donate to Operation Christmas Child.
Churches and organizations all over the nation partner with Samaritan’s Purse to send small toiletries, school supplies, and toys or activities to children in third-world countries at Christmas.
According to their website, the organization has collected and delivered more than 135 million gift-filled shoeboxes to children in more than 150 countries and territories since 1993.
In the year 2000, 7-year-old Tyrel Wolfe and his family participated in the project. The young boy from Idaho picked out and packed items for a young girl his age, then included a photo of himself sporting his cowboy getup with a rustic cabin backdrop.
For Tyrel, the project was just a moment in time. He’d had fun packing it up and thinking about the kid who would receive it, but once it was returned to the church and sent overseas, it never crossed his mind again.
But for one little girl in the Philippines, the gift completely changed the trajectory of her life.
Almost a decade had passed when Tyrel received a Facebook friend request in 2009. It was from a young woman named Joana Marchan, whom he’d never heard of. He ignored the request and moved on.
Two years later, the same woman sent him another request.
Curious this time about who she was and why she was interested in being friends with him, Tyrel sent Joana a message asking how she knew him.
She replied, telling him that the shoebox gift he’d sent 11 years ago had meant so much to her, she wanted to connect with him.
It turns out, she’d even tried writing him a thank you note years before, but it got lost in the mail.
“I was curious as to what he was like now,” Joana said. “Was he going to college like me?”
After being reminded by his mother of his involvement in the project, Tyrel continued his conversation with Joana, which quickly blossomed into an unexpected friendship.
The two shared a number of common interests like their Christian faith, and favorite music. Conversation came naturally, and they corresponded for a full year before they decided to meet in person.
Tyrel graduated high school in May of 2013. By then he had saved up enough money working for his dad to fly to Quezon City and spend 10 days in the Philippines.
“I knew I was taking a big risk,” Tyrel says. “I had never traveled alone, let alone to a foreign country before, and I was meeting people I didn’t know or even knew really existed.”
Feeling nervous, anxious and excited, Tyrel could never have guessed that this trip would lead him to his wife.
“When I finally got there and saw her, I had to punch myself a couple times because I thought it was a dream,” he says. “I was immediately attracted to her.”
Experiencing how Joana’s family lived opened Tyrel’s eyes to how “blessed” he truly is.
All eight members of the Marchan family slept on the floor of their 10×19-foot house.
“Here in America, a lot of people are blessed with a lot of things, and after seeing Joana’s home, I’ve gained a different outlook on how people live.”
Tyrel returned home after “one of the hardest goodbyes” he’s ever had to say. But the two stayed in constant communication via Facebook, and Skyped with each other often before Tyrel returned to the Philippines again in November.
This time, he stayed for a full month, then asked Joana’s father for her hand in marriage.
After another long road of waiting, and some extra convincing from Tyrel’s father, the two became engaged.
On October 5, 2014, Joana and Tyrel tied the knot on the Wolfe family ranch in Idaho.
Because of his ability to earn a living and support Joana (and her family) with his job, the couple decided to live full-time in the U.S.
“It was a big change and adjustment for me,” Joana says. “I was raised in the city and now I’m living in the country with much less people and more space, but it’s a beautiful place.”
Today, they still live in Midvale, Idaho, now with their son, who was born in June.
Since saying “I do,” the couple has been committed to packing a Samaritan’s Purse shoebox every holiday season. Each one includes a note that tells their story.
“We don t want to give them some fantasy, but we do want to show that we care and want to share our love,” Tyrel says. “We both feel so blessed and grateful that Operation Christmas Child brought us together.”