During the Christmas season of 2000, a young Filipino girl received a gift-filled shoebox and she couldn’t have imagined that one day she would actually meet the 7-year-old boy from Idaho who packed the box in a small town 7000 miles away.
Furthermore, she never dreamed that she would marry the American boy, all grown up 14 years later.
In November, 2014, Joana and her new husband Tyrel Wolfe dropped off their own homemade gift shoeboxes at Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in North Carolina, where Operation Christmas Child is run. Coming full circle, they told their remarkable story to the nonprofit group that had started it all.
A Lost Letter
Joana received the shoebox at a vacation bible school in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. Included in the box was a small photo of a little boy in a cowboy shirt holding a lariat. The boy had included his name and address.
She wanted to write to him and describe how the box had impacted her, but when Joana mailed the young blonde boy a letter, he never received it.
Eleven years later Joana decided to use Facebook to see if she could find the boy who packed her box: “I still wanted to thank the person who gave me the box that had meant so much to me.”
She searched for Tyrel Wolfe. Numerous options appeared, but one name popped up from Idaho. The boy in the photo was dressed in cowboy-type attire with a rustic mountain background. She had never been to the United States, but she knew that Idaho had mountains. Was this ‘Tyrel Wolfe’ the one? She clicked on the link and submitted a friend request.
In the rural community of Midvale (pop. 160), Tyrel was intrigued by a message from “a random girl in the Philippines.”
Thus began their Facebook friendship and an exchange of letters and pictures over the next year. The more they corresponded, the more things Tyrel and Joana found they had in common. They were both passionate about music—albeit different styles—and both sing and play at least one musical instrument. And Joana had always dreamed of a quiet life in the country.
Despite the 15-hour time difference, they set aside moments in the morning and again at night for daily Facebook visits. But if their relationship was to progress, they needed to see each other in person.
Journey to the Philippines
In June 2013, after saving up money for a plane ticket and receiving cautionary blessings from his parents, Tyrel flew to Manila. He had been on overseas Christian missions before, but had never been to Asia—and had never traveled alone.
“Once I saw his face, an amazing feeling came over me,” Joana said. “I was so happy I cried.”
Tyrel stayed for 10 days and got to know Joana in her hometown. Prior to the trip, they had agreed not to officially date until Tyrel had asked her father’s permission in person. Midway through his visit he gathered the courage to ask the protective pastor, and Joana’s father gave his approval without hesitation.
“I wanted to spend every moment I could with Joana while I was there, because once I left I didn’t know what would happen next,” Tyrel said. “All I knew was Joana was the one.”
To Have and to Hold
Tyrel returned to Idaho fully determined to go back to the Philippines. He accepted extra hours at work as a trails- and bridge-builder at state parks, saving every dollar he could in order to visit Joana during the holiday season. This time he stayed for a month.
At last he was ready to pop the big question. Speaking in the Tagalog language, he asked her dad for permission to marry the girl of his dreams.
The couple held an engagement party in the Philippines and obtained a fiancée visa for Joana.
On October 5 they got married in an outdoor ceremony on Tyrel’s parents’ 400-acre cattle ranch and Tyrel wore a barong, the traditional embroidered shirt worn by Filipino grooms.
Wedding Guests Donate Shoeboxes
Tyrel’s mom came up with the idea of asking invited guests to bring gift-filled shoeboxes for donation. “Operation Christmas Child is what brought Joana and me together, so we wanted to somehow make the project a part of our celebration,” Tyrel recalled.
Joana loved the idea and included “Pack a Shoebox” brochures with every wedding invitation. Some guests brought boxes; others gave a donation.
Rather than leaving the shoeboxes at one of the many Samaritan’s Purse drop-off location in Idaho, the Wolfes agreed it would be more meaningful if they delivered the boxes to the Christian aid group’s headquarters, bringing their own shoebox–journey full circle.
Now six weeks into married life, Tyrel and Joana are looking forward to their first Christmas together in the United States. They have started a tradition that they hope to continue every year for the rest of their lives—packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.
“And when we start having children, we want to involve them in packing boxes too,” said a smiling Tyrel as he held his wife’s hand. “I remember as a little boy, I was so excited to know the toys and other items I put in the box would bring joy to another child somewhere else in the world.
“I just didn’t know the joy it would bring back to me one day.”