Tech football program does its part to extend holiday spirit

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Christmas doesn’t occur on the calendar for another six weeks, but the Virginia Tech football team already is in the holiday spirit.

The players and coaches took time after Thursday’s practice to pack small toys, school supplies and toiletries into shoeboxes as part of Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse, a faith-based relief organization, sponsors the initiative and ships the shoeboxes to underprivileged children all over the world. Each Tech player and coach also slipped a handwritten note of encouragement into each shoebox.

“This means a lot,” Tech offensive tackle and team captain Jonathan McLaughlin said. “Whenever you can use your platform to reach out to other people and do things for the community and for the world, it’s big. It makes me feel proud that someone came up with this, and we’re able to help.”

This marks the third year of the Tech football program’s involvement with Operation Christmas Child. That involvement came about in 2014 when student Elizabeth Henry first approached former Tech player Antone Exum about donating a shoebox to the cause. She also asked several other members of the football team – many of whom she knew from living in Harper Hall, a co-ed dormitory, with them as a freshman. Exum and several others gladly participated, with many of them just dropping off shoeboxes at her dorm room. Then last year, Henry asked Frank Beamer if he and the entire team would get involved. Beamer gladly accepted the invitation.

This year, head coach Justin Fuente and Danielle Bartelstein, Tech’s senior director of football operations, kept the tradition going. The program purchased the gifts, and the players and coaches took care of the packing. Henry will make sure the shoeboxes get to one of thousands of drop-off locations around the country before the Nov. 21 deadline.

“It’s a way for us, as a team, to bond over this experience,” Tech team captain Joey Slye said. “But at the same time, a lot of these guys have stories of their own – maybe not situations exactly like this, but of someone coming to talk to them at school or something like that. They have some sort of inspiring story that they know, and they know that doing something like this really can mean a lot to someone else. It’s good to be able to do this as a team and affect many, many lives.”

Henry has become known campus wide as a crusader for Operation Christmas Child. The human nutrition, foods and exercise major from Williamsburg, Virginia was born in Ukraine and spent nearly all of her childhood in an orphanage. While there, she received a shoebox filled with goodies when she was 10 years old, and the gift left a lasting mark on her.

James and Jean Henry adopted Elizabeth not long after she turned 13 and brought her to the United States. Their adoption of her arguably saved her a life of hardship, perhaps worse. In Ukraine, orphans must leave the orphanage at the age of 16, literally cast out on the street and practically left to fend for themselves.

Six years ago, Henry decided to commit herself to this mission, and during this time each year, she solicits friends, fellow students, fraternities, sororities, churches, university administrators, student organizations and basically anyone and everyone to take part in Operation Christmas Child.

“To me, this isn’t just packing a shoebox,” Henry said. “This is really about the gospel of Jesus Christ. When I was in the orphanage, I had already developed a relationship with God. I kept praying, ‘Show me something. I’m out of hope here. Just change my life.’ The shoebox came, and to me, that represented hope. To me, that was something I could hold on to and keep going day by day. It really meant everything to me. It really changes lives.”

Several stories have been written about Henry’s work with Operation Christmas Child, but she made a shrewd move in getting the Tech football program’s involvement. The football program possesses a large platform and certainly put the spotlight on the initiative within the campus community. Henry readily admits that the program also gave both her and Operation Christmas Child even more credibility.

The attention and the program’s involvement has helped, as Henry has collected more than 3,000 shoeboxes since she started her mission. That number figures to rise substantially once she concludes counting all of this year’s collections.

“I knew that if the football team got involved, it would make this a ‘news’ thing around campus,” Henry said. “I thought other people would then like to get involved as well. Coach Beamer was a big part of that. He’s a respected man on this campus, and everyone loves him. Whenever I talk about this project or promote this project, I have huge pictures of Beamer and the team. They’re a huge part of this.”

Henry’s work caught the attention of Samaritan’s Purse, and officials of the organization named her one of their national spokespersons. She travels all over the country to speak to groups about Operation Christmas Child.

Her love for the initiative and for Samaritan’s Purse has her thinking about her next move. She graduates in May, but wants to take the following year to work for Samaritan’s Purse as an intern before pursuing a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling. She has learned that internships with the organization are difficult to obtain, but remains undaunted in her pursuit of that goal.

She also wants to find her on-campus replacement. She seeks someone with even more passion than her for Operation Christmas Child.

“I’ve been interviewing people to do this for me,” Henry said. “But of course, I will never just drop this on somebody. I will always be involved, even if I’m however many hours away. I’m always going to be calling this person and asking, ‘Are you on top of this? Are you on top of this?’ This project means everything to me, and I have to make sure that this keeps growing and going in the right direction.”

As the players departed their second-floor lounge following Thursday’s packing session, they left behind more than 100 shoeboxes to be added to Henry’s total. But this wasn’t done for the purpose of achieving a numerical goal. Instead, they hope to have changed the lives of more than 100 children throughout the world.

The thought of that left them with strong sense of fulfillment in living up to the university’s motto Ut Prosim – “That I May Serve.”

“Any time you can help people in any way shape or form, it’s a humbling experience,” Slye said. “I actually know Elizabeth personally, and I’ve heard her story about how a box changed her life, so if mine could do that for another kid, that would be pretty special.”

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