Danay Warden received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox as a teenager living in a Christian orphanage in Peru.
A simple box filled with items most teenage girls take for granted gave an orphaned teen in Peru with the burdens of an adult an indescribable hope that she carries with her to this day.
Danay Warden was the oldest of five sisters who lost their parents in a car crash, but she was determined to keep her family together. And in the worst moments over the coming years, that shoebox from Operation Christmas Child brought her comfort and peace.
Samaritan’s Purse partners with churches such as Prestonwood to provide Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes to children in need all over the world. The ministry has delivered shoeboxes to more than 157 million children in 160 countries since 1993. The goal is to collect gift-filled shoeboxes to deliver to some 12 million children this year.
Every year, Prestonwood collects thousands of filled shoeboxes from members, and other ministries, churches, schools and individuals throughout the region.
Prestonwood volunteers distribute shoeboxes in the Atrium at the Plano Campus.
“It was August 5, 2000, when we lost our parents,” said Danay, who now lives in Dallas with her husband, Nathan, and their two daughters, Lydia and Rachael. “Being the oldest, I had to take on the role of being both a father and a mother to my four sisters.
“We were poor, and my mom and dad had to travel far so they could sell their products to provide for us and give us a better life,” said Danay, who attends Prestonwood with her family. “After my parents died I became angry with God because I couldn’t understand why He took away my parents, the people I loved most, the people He had created for me.”
Sometimes, Danay said, she imagined that the family’s tragedy was just a dream, “that mom and dad would come back to take care of us.”
“Then I heard some of our relatives talking about separating us, which only made me more scared.”
More than anything, Danay wanted to keep her family together, so she went to the courthouse seeking help. She met a judge and told her about the family’s situation. The judge gave her two choices: either live in the government orphanage or go to a new orphanage run by a group of missionaries from Spain.
“I believe that God led me to choose (the Christian orphanage) because that’s the place where my walk with the Lord started,” Danay said.
A week or so before her first Christmas at the orphanage, “a special lady named Norma came and told me that God loved me so much that He sent His only Son to die for me,” Danay remembered.
“This is the day I gave my life to Jesus and it is the day that I felt peace in my heart and the emptiness was not there anymore. In that moment I no longer felt lonely. It was a new beginning for me, but this time I had a Father who was with me all the time.
“I was baptized and began serving in the children’s ministry at church,” she said. “I would describe my years in the orphanage as being the best years of my life and a great blessing to me.”
During her last year at the orphanage, Danay received an unexpected gift, a brightly colored shoebox. She still remembers every little present tucked inside.
“I was a teenager, and I remember receiving eye shadow, and a T-shirt, some jewelry, and school supplies,” she said. “And I remember a coloring book.
A simple shoebox provides hope to children in need all over the world.
“Since people were always coming to the orphanage and donating things, I thought this was one of their donations, but I was wrong. These shoeboxes were boxes that families had put together to bless all of the kids in the orphanage. This was an Operation Christmas Child box.
“It was a gift for me from Jesus,” she said.
It was a wonderful surprise, she said, and it gave her hope, something many children feel when they receive their gifts. The children who receive the OCC boxes cherish every item. But their favorite thing to find is a note tucked inside, she said.
“Always include a note when you send an Operation Christmas Child box,” Danay said. “It makes the children feel even more special.”
Danay and her sisters spent four years in the orphanage, and Danay was near the age when she would have to move out and live on her own.
“As I was growing up, reality started hitting me. The fact that my four sisters and I might not be adopted was becoming a reality,” she said. “Since you can’t be adopted once you’re 18, and the fact that I was 17 already, added to these thoughts.”
But God had a plan.
A few months after the Operation Christmas Child box arrived, officials at the orphanage brought Danay some incredible news. They told her that a missionary couple from America, Cliff and Grace Hutchison, wanted to adopt her and and all of her sisters.
It was exactly what they had hoped and prayed for—a home where they could all be together.
“We became part of the Hutchison family. It was a new beginning for all of us,” Danay said. “Mom spoke Spanish and Dad spoke a little bit of Spanish, but God made everything work out.”
After the adoption, the family spent almost two years in Lima, with the International Mission Board, until it was time for the Hutchisons to return to America, and home to the Texas Hill Country in Llano.
“For our first Christmas, my parents told us about Operation Christmas Child and that we were going to make some boxes to send to children around the world,” Danay said.
“That’s when I shared that we got (OCC boxes) in the orphanage. It was a joy to make them because now we were the ones sending them.”
Four years ago, the Wardens felt called to return to Peru and minister to the people of her home country. As missionaries, they were able to help distribute shoeboxes to children in situations just like the one Danay and her sisters had found themselves in so many years ago.
“One of the blessings of serving in this ministry was being able to hand out many of the Operation Christmas Child boxes,” Danay said. “It was precious to see the face of each child as they opened their box.”
Danay Warden and her two daughters, Lydia and Rachael, participate in Operation Christmas Child.
The Wardens are back in the Dallas area, waiting for the Lord’s direction for their new missionary assignment. In the meantime, Danay is volunteering in the Prestonwood KIDZ Ministry and the whole family is engaged.
Operation Christmas Child remains a central part of their holiday.
“It’s very special to see these children opening their packages,” Danay said.
No one knows who provides each gift, but that doesn’t really matter.
The important thing, she said, is the children know that someone somewhere loves them and prays for them.