“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

— General Leia Organa, “The Last Jedi” (image by magicalquote.com)

Say what you want, but I loved parts of “The Last Jedi,” especially the quote above.

Two times within the past week, strangers have reminded me how important hope is. As someone who wrestles with self-doubt and starting something, getting overwhelmed and quitting, I found their messages to be reassuring.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be back in a major way. Restrictions are starting coming back. It can be quite depressing. Sometimes a little hope is all you need to keep going, according to the two people I talked to. Their parts in this blog piece are part of articles that I wrote for a local newspaper.

Finding Home is a feature of this blog about hope. Having hope for a better future, having hope people will turn their lives around. Finding Home is also about putting hope into action, which the next two people — Yves Dushime and Steve Shaffer — have done.

Yves Dushime

Operation Christmas Child spokesperson and awesome human being (YouTube screengrab)

Yves Dushime (pronounced like “Eve Do-she-me”), currently of Buffalo, New York, was originally supposed to visit where I live recently as part of his duties as a spokesman for Operation Christmas Child. The recent rise in COVID cases caused Samaritan’s Purse, which runs the program, to make Dushime’s visit with OCC-supporting organizations virtual. I interviewed him in between events.

When he was 11 years old, Dushime, who was living in Togo at the time, received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. That box — filled with school supplies, little toys and a scarf — changed his life.

Before he was even born, his family was a target in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which an estimated 1 million people were killed. Dushime’s mother was eight months pregnant with him at the time their family’s home was attacked — by neighbors who lived down the street.

For Dushime, who grew up as a son of a pastor, the genocide did not make sense as it contradicted his family’s Christian beliefs.

“As I grew up, I began to understand that I would never come to know my grandparents, uncles and aunt, who were unduly killed for the crime of being born in a certain group,” he said. “It wrecked me. I saw the world in a negative way that guided me for a long time. 

“My parents tried to tell me to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’d think, ‘How can you love your neighbors when they killed your parents?’”

After his parents fled for their lives, Dushime was born in a refugee camp in Congo. After being turned away from several countries, his family went to refugee camps in Kenya and eventually settled in Togo. It was there where Operation Christmas Child dropped off 300 shoeboxes at the church Dushime’s father served.

Dushime has fond memories of some of the items he got, a Hot Wheels car that had doors that opened, school supplies, a little tub of Play Doh, some of which he mistakenly ate.

The most impactful part of the box was a sticky note on the very top that read “God loves you. Jesus loves you. I love you.”

“That last ‘I love you’ wrecked me,” Dushime said. “A member of humanity, a group I had chosen to despise and hate, told me ‘I love you’ anyway.”

The note marked a turning point in Dushime’s faith.

“The world wasn’t as black and white as I had painted it,” he said. “Humanity was not destined to be hated.”

The note shows Dushime two things: If a total stranger could demonstrate kindness and love toward him, he had no excuse not to do the same to those closest to him.

“I justified my hatred,” he said. “But if these people who wrote the note had no clue who I was, how much more of an impact could I have on those around me if I just opened my heart?”

It also showed him a new way of seeing the world.

“There is such positivity in life,” Dushime said. “The hatred was stripped away. That would not have been possible if people didn’t pack the shoebox.”

Since 1993, over 188 million shoebox gifts have been collected for children in over 160 countries and territories. OCC’s National Collection Week is Nov. 15-22, but local drop-off locations will be announced in late October online at samartianspurse.org/occ .

Shoeboxes bring hope

Dushime noted that during the pandemic, the shoeboxes are needed more than ever. Prior to the interview, he gave a speech virtually to a group in Jackson. Samaritan’s Purse, which runs OCC, opened a field hospital there to help with the influx of COVID patients.

“I was at a virtual event in Jackson organized by a volunteer team. Two of their members died of COVID in the same week,” he said. “I thought how can you be doing this right now after your friends have died. But they believe in the cause.

“It makes me think about how we have access to modern medicine, all of these things, yet we are in so much pain.”

Dushime noted that many countries don’t have health care systems. Many don’t have ambulances and most families don’t have cars.

“If we are suffering so much, only imagine how the rest of the world is fairing,” he said. “Now more than ever, the message of hope is needed across the world. It is time to send out messages of hope, as many as we can, as soon as we can.”

Dushime noted that currently, people are finding remains in the jungles of Rwanda and surrounding countries. The remains are from around the time of genocide. Experts have noted that the remains show signs of self-inflected wounds, which may indicate death by suicide.

“As someone who was a refugee, when you don’t have any idea of what tomorrow will bring, only hope will keep you going,” Dushime continued. “In its most powerful form, hope makes a huge difference. It makes all the difference.”

Dushime said you can almost plot the impact his shoebox made in his life. 

“One of the biggest reasons I’m talking with you is because of the shoebox,” he said. “It’s impact changed my heart and allowed me to grow to be the person I am today.”

Steve Shaffer

Professor, volunteer coach. I want to be like Coach Steve when I grow up. (Photo by Nicole Bowman-Layton/mtnmamaadventures.blog)

Almost every day after school, members of the local middle and high school cross-country teams (including Mountain Kid 1), run through the hills of our community.

For the past decade, student-athletes have run under the guidance of assistant coach and volunteer Steve Shaffer, also known as Coach Steve.

“It’s funny. I was running on my own with this guy, Joe MacGown, whose son, Joseph was the fastest guy in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “So we’d run on weekends — Joe, Joseph, me and some college guys. Then, Joseph went to (named deleted to give Shaffer and his runners privacy) High School and started running there. And I just kind of followed him there and have been here ever since.”

Shaffer hasn’t always been a runner. His fitness journey began 37 years ago, when at the age of 30, he was overweight.

“I had borderline high blood pressure and that really scared me,” Shaffer said Saturday, after running the Starkville Foundation for Public Education Hannah Pote Run for Education virtually with the cross-county team at MSU’s North Farm. The route was 3.1 miles.

“I knew the only way to get rid of it was through a lifestyle change,” he said of the high blood pressure.

Shaffer started his fitness journey by walking five miles a day, which took about two hours.

“You can break it up into one-mile segments throughout the day,” he said.

Eventually, he started adding mileage and time to his workouts and adding hiking to his routine.

His current routine includes strength training, mostly body resistance exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups. Shaffer said he works out about two hours a day. About half of that time is spent walking and stretching.

Human interaction important

The people in the exercise community are what keeps Shaffer coming back, he said.

“Some people like to hike in the mountains or run alone,” he said. “For me, it’s fun being around people.”

As he gets older, Shaffer said he’s found that having a positive mental attitude is one of the most important aspects of survival. He noted how humans crave to be around people.

“I don’t think our political leaders really thought out the impact of the coronavirus,” he said. “I’ve found as you get older, the most important thing is your mental attitude — your emotional and psychological state.

“When you’re around young people who are optimistic, energetic and they don’t know all the bad things that could happen to them, it just makes you feel good,” Shaffer said.