In her make-up purse Kilrush-based Josipa Akinradewo always carries a pair of pink scissors.
“I can’t believe they still work,” says the Croatian native, who has been living in Ireland for six years.
The scissors were part of a stationery kit contained in a shoebox – a precious gift from a stranger overseas, which Josipa received in 1993 when she was eight years old. “It was during the Croatian War of Independence. I was living in Zagreb with my mother and two younger sisters. My father was on the frontline. It was hard to be without him. I was very connected to him,” says the mum of two, whose dad died in August – because of Covid-19 she hadn’t seen him in three years.
The shoebox came through Josipa’s aunt, a volunteer with the Red Cross and with the local church, who organised the shoeboxes for local children. Josipa’s shoebox came from a child in Germany. “Inside was a photo of the boy – I still remember it, his brown hair, freckles on his face. And there was a letter, which my mother translated. I think he knew his gift was going to Croatia because he wrote that he hoped the war would be over soon and that we would be safe.
“As a child, I was like a little hamster, collecting everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if that letter is still somewhere in my parents’ house,” says Josipa.
Now mum to Jakov, 11, and Hanna, five, she recalls the colourfully-wrapped shoebox, the unfamiliar German sweets inside, the sharing of gifts that went on between the three sisters – they each got a shoebox. “The gift made me feel special. It was my shoebox, a personal gift – someone was really thinking about me. I wondered what kind of life this boy had, where was he living.”
The shoeboxes were the only gift Josipa and her sisters got that year. “Every year, before the war, we got gifts from my parents’ employers, but not during the war,” she recalls.
The memory of that special childhood moment came rushing back when Josipa’s son, then aged six, arrived home from primary school in Shankill, Dublin, with the Team Hope Shoebox Appeal leaflet. “I said, ‘Oh my God, those are the shoeboxes’. I told Jakov my story and he said he’d like to do it. And now Hanna has joined us and it has become our tradition since 2016.”
Due to Covid-19, the Team Hope Christmas Shoebox Appeal went entirely online last year. This year it’s back to its usual form – the appeal’s ambassadors, international rugby player Josh van der Flier and Ireland women’s hockey international Elena Tice, are calling on schools, families and communities to donate gift-filled shoeboxes for children affected by poverty in Eastern Europe and Africa this Christmas.
This year’s appeal theme is #MakeAChildSmile – the aim is to encourage people to think about the impact, the joy and smiles, that a shoebox brings to the child who receives it.
“The shoebox appeal is such a tradition for so many families and schools. They love sending that box of love and joy. We’ve had phone calls, asking ‘is it true that it’s back?’ People are delighted,” says Jonathan Douglas, Team Hope Shoebox Appeal manager.
Last year’s appeal brought in just under 45,000 online shoeboxes, while the previous year – just before the pandemic – the appeal reached its highest number of shoeboxes in a single year: 270,488 shoeboxes.
In good form after representing Ireland at the Tokyo Olympics this summer (“it was a disappointing result but an amazing experience”), Elena Tice recalls the boxes piling up in the front hall of Aravon School in Bray, where she was a pupil. “I was probably 10. It definitely taught me about giving to others. There aren’t many opportunities for children to actively feel a part of something bigger, but this is one such opportunity. It’s incredible that children can go with