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Alex Nsengimana tells his story to Calvary Christ Church congregation

He held up a comb and a candy cane - they were two small gifts he had received years before.

When he was barely 7 years old and living in an orphanage, Alex Nsengimana of Rwanda received the two items in a decorated shoe box. They were the best possible presents.

The presents were among the thousands sent by people around the world by Samaritan's Purse, which runs Operation Christmas Child.

On Sunday, Alex, now a spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child, spoke to the Calvary Christian Church congregation and its guests about the program. Now is the kick-off time for this year's project.

Alex's mother died of AIDS when he was very young.

"I don't have any history of my father; I have an older sister and brother," he said. "We were raised by our grandmother."

After his grandmother died, Alex went to live in an orphanage. The orphanage would be his home for several years and it was where he was first connected to Operation Christmas Child.

"I remember the orphanage leaders calling all the children into the yard and telling us that they had gifts for us from America," said Alex. The box included the comb and the candy cane.

Years later, Alex joined the African Children's Choir. With that group he toured countries all over the world, including the United States. In 2003, he came to stay with a family he had met while on tour.

"The family wanted to do something for me to come back to the U.S. for education," he said. "It was a great miracle how plans succeeded."

He has lived in Minnesota for nine years and is currently attending Crossroads College in Rochester. He is studying to become a pastor with the eventual hope of returning to Rwanda to start a church.

He loves Minnesota except for one thing.

"I like it all except for winter," he said. This past summer was the best, he said.

When not in school, Alex travels around the country to talk about Operation Christmas Child and the first box which brought hope into this life.

"When it nears the collection months, I tell my story to encourage the communities to pack shoe boxes because I believe in the ministry that those boxes carry," he said. "Every time I pack a box, I remember how excited I was when I received the box, and I want the child receiving the box to be excited, too.

"We had 250 kids in that compound where I lived. To us, it was a message of love."

It remains that way today.

This year Samaritan Purse expects to surpass more than 100 million gift-filled shoe boxes since 1993.

Gift boxes are designed for boys or girls according to age: 2 to 4, 5 to 9 and 10 to 14.

Suggested gifts are school supplies, small toys, hygiene items and hard candy (no chocolate).

More information is available at www.samaritanpurse


Operation Christmas Gift boxes are available at Calvary Christian Church, 906 W. 15th St. The collection drive is Nov. 12 to Nov. 19.