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Shoe boxes bring hope to children.

Byline: Eryl Crump

A GIANT plane filled with Christmas presents took off for Afghanistan yesterday.

The Antonov 124, the world's largest commercial aircraft, was loaded with 20,000 shoeboxes filled with gifts donated by schoolchildren across North Wales and Merseyside to the Wrexhambased charity Operation Christmas Child (OCC).

In addition, the plane was carrying 2,400 hygiene packs which contain toothbrushes, flannels, towels, socks and baby oil which will be distributed at refugee camps in western Afghanistan.

The Russian-built Antonov, which has made similar mercy missions to war-torn countries for the past ten years, took off from Stansted Airport yesterday and headed to the eastern Iranian city of Zahadan.

Speaking from the massive cargo hold as the crew made final preparations before departure.

OCC founder, Dave Cooke, told the Daily Post : "The flight to Iran will take six hours and from there we will take the parcels across the border to two refugee camps in the Afghanistan desert. One of the camps has 10,000 Talibans and the other is full of Mujahadeen.

"Each child will receive a parcel and each tent will receive a basic hygiene pack prepared at our Wrexham headquarters.

"We are very grateful to the people of North Wales who have worked hard over a number of months to put the shoeboxes together. It is a culmination of a great deal of effort."

In addition to the Antonov, OCC workers are also due to fly out to 12 countries across Eastern Europe, as well as Afghanistan, to bring its famous shoeboxes of gifts to children in destitute countries.

The charity was set up more than 10 years ago after Dave Cooke watched scenes of Romanian children suffering in the country's orphanages and decided he had to do something to help.

"I just couldn't get the pictures out of my head, " he said. "One of my friends who was a heavy goods driver came to see me and I asked him if he would like to come to Romania with me. He agreed immediately.

"Suddenly, Romania seemed drivable, so I just thought I would take food and medical supplies."

Dave, 47, had expected the worse, but couldn't believe some of the sights he came across when he actually got to the orphanages.

"We were going into orphanages where there was total silence except for the noise of children grinding their own teeth out of boredom. Children were even tied to their cots. It had a profound impression on me. I saw a child there eating his own arm. It sticks in your mind and you do not forget this kind of stuff."

His experience made Dave more determined to raise more funds, and OCC has since become an established charity, with volunteers driving all over the world to distribute gifts in countries such as Albania, Kosovo, and now to the refugee camps on the Afghan/ Iranian borders.

Last month Dave made a preliminary trip to these camps.

He said: "It was pretty sparse. It is like a desert out there and the kids are bored out of their minds with nothing to do. They had come from the bombed area in the north and were coming to our camps down on the border.

"About 70pc of the camp was made up of kids and they were all under the age of 14.

"We put in $100,000 and we trucked in blankets, jackets, shoes, everything that is needed.

"We knew it was dangerous, but I do not think you pay much attention to your own safety because you are more concerned with the children. That's how it has got to be."
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 17, 2001
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