Lejla Allison's happy childhood was turned upside down when ethnic violence erupted in Bosnia in the 1990s. The once peaceful rolling green hills that surrounded her village of Dubrave were filled with gunfire and hidden landmines. Hunger, fear and misery consumed her life.
But Lejla and her family were not forgotten. She was among the first group of children to receive gift-filled shoe boxes when Operation Christmas Child was launched in 1993 in Bosnia. At the time, she was 11 years-old. Lejla remembers how much hope the colorfully-wrapped shoe box gift with candy, pencils and sneakers gave her.
"I truly felt blessed. I knew that God had answered my prayers," Lejla said. "I was so overwhelmed I started to cry. But these were not the tears I was used to crying. This time they were tears of joy. This time I knew it was worthwhile to keep on living."
In 2000, Lejla married an American who was working with NATO on a peace-keeping mission as a civilian contractor. They were married in her village and lived there for 8 months before moving to the United States.
Lejla did not know Operation Christmas Child by name until her sister-in-law told her about a shoe box packing project for needy kids around the world several years ago. Lejla immediatly made the connection.
"I told my sister that I received one of those shoe box gifts when I wasyounger!" Lejla said.
Because she knows first-hand what a blessing a shoe box gift can be to a hurting child, Lejla encourages anyone who wants to touch a life to consider packing a box. She plans to pack more than 50 shoe box gifts for needy children this year.
'It is hard to put into words what that box meant to me. It really changed me life," said Lejla. "Now I pack some of those boxes. I pray that all of the boys and girls who receive shoe box gifts will know that they are loved."
:: DOWNLOAD/LISTEN to Lejla's story (audio file).